Israel kills Palestinian children as a matter of policy. This claim can easily be demonstrated and is supported by the findings of the latest Human Rights Watch report. The question is why?
When a police officer or soldier shoots a child anywhere else in the world, though utterly tragic, it can be argued, at least in theory, that the killing was an unfortunate mistake. But when thousands of children are killed or wounded in a systematic, routine and comparable method within a relatively short period of time, it must be deliberate.
In a report titled “West Bank: Spike in Israeli Killings of Palestinian Children,” which was published last month, Human Rights Watch reached a strong conclusion based on an exhaustive examination of medical data, eyewitness accounts, video footage and field research, with the last of these pertaining to four specific cases. One of the cases was that of Mahmoud Al-Sadi, a 17-year-old Palestinian from the Jenin refugee camp, who was killed last November some 320 meters away from the clashes in the camp between invading Israeli forces and Jenin-based fighters.
Mahmoud was on his way to school and carried nothing that could be seen, from the soldiers’ point of view, as threatening or suspicious. His story is typical and is often repeated throughout the West Bank, sometimes daily. The predictable outcome, as Human Rights Watch put it, is that these killings are followed up with “virtually no recourse for accountability.”
As of Aug. 22, 34 Palestinian children had been killed in the West Bank in 2023, adding yet more tragic numbers to a foreboding year that promises to be the most violent since 2005. This year “already surpasses 2022 annual figures, and the highest figure since 2005,” in terms of casualties, reported UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Tor Wennesland during a briefing last month. These numbers, among other factors — including Israel’s expansion of illegal Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank — threaten “to worsen the plight of the most vulnerable Palestinians,” according to Wennesland.
Palestinians know that the Israeli war on children is an intrinsic component of the larger Israeli war on all Palestinians
However, these “most vulnerable Palestinians” exist beyond the realm of mere numbers. When Israeli soldiers killed two-year-old Mohammed Tamimi on June 5, the little boy’s name was added to an ever-expanding list. The memory of the infant, like those of all other Palestinian children, is etched into the collective consciousness of all Palestinians. It deepens their pain, but also compels their struggle and their resistance.
For Palestinians, the killing of their children is not a random act of a military that lacks discipline and fears no repercussions. Palestinians know that the Israeli war on children is an intrinsic component of the larger Israeli war on all Palestinians.
Israel does not officially declare that it is deliberately targeting Palestinian children. That would be a public relations disaster. However, some Israeli officials have, in the past, let their guard down and offered a strange and troubling logic. Palestinian children are “little snakes,” politician Ayelet Shaked wrote in 2015. In a Facebook post published by The Washington Post, Shaked declared war on all Palestinians and called for the killing of “the mothers of the (Palestinian) martyrs.” She wrote: “They should follow their sons, nothing could be more just.” Shortly after, Shaked ironically became Israel’s justice minister.
Data collected by international human rights groups leaves no doubt that the nature of the killings shows they are part of a comprehensive strategy deployed by the Israeli military. In all the cases recently investigated by Human Rights Watch, “Israeli forces shot the children’s upper bodies.” This was done without the “issuing of warnings or using common, less lethal measures.”
Specifically, the killing of Palestinian children is a centralized and deliberate Israeli military strategy.
The same logic now being applied in the West Bank has already been used in the besieged Gaza Strip. UN figures show that, in the Israeli war on Gaza in 2008-09, 333 Palestinian children were killed. Other estimates put the number at 410. In 2012, 47 children were killed during Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense. In July and August 2014, 578 children were killed during Israel’s assault on the Strip. The 2021 attack killed 66 children, while in 2022 the number was 17, and so on.
Between March 2018 and May 2019, 59 Palestinian children were killed in what was known as the “Great March of Return” — mass protests that took place at the fence separating Israel from besieged Gaza. All of them were killed from a distance by Israeli snipers.
The most that UN officials and rights groups seem to be able to do is to tally the alarming casualty figures
When the numbers of dead and wounded children are tallied, they are counted in the thousands. To be exact, there were more than 8,700 Palestinian child casualties between 2015 and 2022, according to the UN. Even the callous and often dehumanizing logic of “collateral damage” cannot justify such figures.
Though the war on Palestinian children is intentional, protracted and ongoing, not a single Israeli military or government official has ever been held accountable in an international court. Even the UN’s “list of shame” for killing children has never included Israel, even though other countries have been “shamed” for far fewer crimes against children.
The killing of children is perceived — according to the twisted logic of the likes of Shaked — to be functional. And, in the absence of any accountability, Israel has no reason to end its war on Palestinian children.
With the constant loosening of the rules of military engagement in Israel and the terrifyingly genocidal language used by the country’s far-right ministers and their massive constituency, more Palestinian children are likely to lose their lives in the near future. Yet, the most that UN officials and rights groups seem to be able to do is to tally the alarming casualty figures. Alas, no number is large enough to dissuade Israel from killing Palestinians.
The problem for Palestinians is not just that of Israel’s violence, but also the lack of international will to hold Israel accountable. Accountability requires unity and a decisiveness of will and action. This task should be a priority for all countries that genuinely care about Palestinians and about universal human rights.
Without such collective action, Palestinian children will continue to die in large numbers and in the most brutal ways — a tragedy that will continue to pain and shame us all.