The Children of Occupation
As I write my final article for the year, I thought it would be appropriate to devote it to the Palestinian children who have grown up under the occupation without ever experiencing the innocence and beauty of childhood. By the time they reach their teens, these children see the world through special glasses–from their perspective, the world is indifferent, harsh, and cruel; one that seems to have abandoned them, a confused world that offers no clarity, no resolution, and no escape. Robbed of their youth, they feel deprived, resentful, and filled with anxiety mixed with a constant nagging pain. But on the verge of 2006, the painful reality of their lives may be about to change, as the changing situation now offers hope that not only the souls of these young may be freed from the burden of occupation, but that Israelis too will free themselves from the shackles of occupiers, permitting Israel to regain the high moral ground.
Whereas the adult Palestinians see the occupation for what it is and struggle with it as the shifting conditions require, albeit with tremendous resistance and deep-seated hatred, their children are clueless about why they must endure the daily indignities and humiliation. And as adults we need to also ask: How does one erase the impression of occupation from the heart and mind of a child, and now a whole new generation of children, who have no memory of ever being free? Living under an occupation, in and of itself, creates different types of defensive mechanism. The enemy, even the most "benevolent", remains the enemy, to be suspected, feared, opposed, rejected, and repudiated. But when the conflict with the enemy is violent, when bloodshed is ever present, and fears of losing a father, a brother, a cousin, or a friend as often happens is a daily reality, occupation and resistance to occupation become a holy mission, often the sole preoccupation. In a conversation I had with Dr. El-Jabari, Chairman of the Board of Hebron University, he said: "The thing that has saddened me the most is that Palestinian children are thrust into adulthood without experiencing the simple innocent life of a child." After a pause he added: "Those very formative years are unfortunately shaped in an atmosphere of violence, fear, and a profound sense of insecurity. They live in anguish: pain and despair exude from their eyes."
It may be said that Palestinian children are living their childhood in a twilight zone of unexplained occurrences and confusing and contradictory messages, punctuated by acts of senseless violence. They grow up seeking resolutions, they want answers, and they latch on to anything that appears to offer a glimmer of hope. They need to prove they are worthy of something, they need validation, self-reckoning, and to ask the questions: Who am I? Where am I going? They seek meaning for their lives, which until now have made them into the objects of disdain and cruelty. It is no wonder then that many join the ranks of the extremists, thereby sanctifying a culture of death, because death for a cause brings the promise of salvation. Adding to the burdens of this tragic loss of childhood is the fact that many Palestinian leaders from the extreme right to the extreme left have made very little effort to shield their children from the horrors of violence and instead have often exploited their innocence to promote rejectionists and extremist agendas. That said, the occupation remains a curse; it has dehumanized both the occupied and the occupier, but the psychological damage inflicted on the children is its most troubling outcome because this damage will take decades to heal.
Unfortunately, many Israelis, especially the remaining revisionist Zionists in the now-defunct Likud party, led by Natanyahu, still believe in greater Israel, not in the least bit comprehending that the occupation is the single most damaging factor in the current situation, and that it will continue to haunt Israel until it is ended. Regardless of cause, historical right and claim, regardless of cultural affinity and religious attachment, the occupation is not sustainable, neither demographically nor morally, as Sharon has discovered. Meanwhile, the occupation has undermined, and will continue to undermine, rather than enhance, Israel's national security. When in 1967, Israel's founder and first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, was taken on a tour by the then Defense Minister Moshe Dayan to view the extent of the Israeli conquest immediately after the Six Day War, he admired the incredible capacity and swift victory of the Israeli military and the brilliance of the operation. Then sighing deeply, he said: "While I wish we could retain every grain of sand for which we spilled so much blood, we must return this land to its present dwellers; otherwise, no peace will ever come to our holy land as long as we occupy Arab land."
With the withdrawal from Gaza, Prime Minister Sharon has signaled the beginning of the end of the occupation. As he goes toward elections in March 2006, we can only hope that his Kadima party wins handedly, providing him with a strong mandate to form a new government. Sharon alone among Israeli leaders has demonstrated that he has both the courage and the vision to achieve peace with security for his nation, while ending the occupation and so permitting Israel to begin to be free of the stigma attached to it. And most urgently, Palestinian and also Israeli children deserve a new dawn and a new beginning to heal the injuries of the past and adjust to the reality of a future of peaceful coexistence.