A bill before Congress seeks merely to stop US aid dollars from subsidizing the incarceration and torture of Palestinian children. Pro-Israel organizations would rather believe outrageous fallacies than stand up for these kids’ rights.
by Kathryn Shihadah
Imagine a country that arrests hundreds of children every year, tortures many of them, and forces them to sign confessions they can’t read. Imagine that the United States provides billions of dollars in free aid to this country.
Now imagine a Congressperson demanding better oversight of aid to that country, to assure that American taxpayer dollars are not spent in support of these practices. Would lawmakers line up to support such legislation? Would anyone with a conscience not want to protect those children?
There is a country that arrests and tortures children – Israel – and it receives $3.8 billion in aid from the US every year. Israel uses much of that money to fund its prison system and military courts that abuse Palestinian children.
Legislation before Congress seeks to control the use of our aid to that country – not to end the aid, just to forbid its use against children. But Congress members are not lining up to support the bill, and some organizations are pushing very hard to keep it that way.
No Way To Treat a Child
Advocates of justice for Palestinians believe the recent bill from Congresswoman Betty McCollum (D-MN-4) sets a comfortably low bar. Its mandate is simple: US taxpayer dollars should not fund the incarceration and torture of children.
The Government of Israel and its military detains around 500 to 700 Palestinian children between the ages of 12 and 17 each year and prosecutes them before a military court system that lacks basic and fundamental guarantees of due process in violation of international standards.
Since 2000, more than 10,000 Palestinian children have been subject to the Israeli military court system.
The bill cites reports by three United Nations organizations, three respected NGOs, and the US State Department. The research is unanimous in its conclusion: Israel is in breach of international law in its treatment of Palestinian children. Here are some of their most conspicuous findings:
- United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reveals, “ill-treatment of children who come in contact with the [Israeli] military detention system appears to be widespread, systematic and institutionalized throughout the process…in no other country are children systematically tried by juvenile military courts that, by definition, fall short of providing the necessary guarantees to ensure respect for their rights.” United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) also reports “degrading treatment, and often to acts of torture.”
- Human Rights Watch (HRW) discusses Israeli soldiers’ use of “chokeholds and beatings” on children as young as eleven.
- The US State Department reported in 2013 that many of the children arrested are accused of stone-throwing (an offense that can carry a sentence of up to twenty years if the perpetrator is Palestinian), and that “signed confessions by Palestinian minors, written in Hebrew, a language most could not read, continued to be used as evidence against them in Israeli military courts.”
- Defense for Children International – Palestine (DCIP) interviewed over 700 child detainees, and found that 73% had endured physical violence and 96% had no parent present during their interrogation.
H.R.2407 is one of dozens of bills addressing the needs of vulnerable children: 232 out of 435 Congress members cosponsored H.R.6, the American Dream and Promise Act; H.R.541 and S.292, the Keep Families Together Acts (against separating parents and children at our southern border) have 202 and 41 cosponsors, respectively.
One might expect that H.R.2407 would also receive broad support – especially since it echoes another law already on the books since 1961. Under normal circumstances, protecting children from abuse and torture would be a legislative no-brainer.
But support for Palestinian justice – even Palestinian children’s justice – is distinctly unpopular. McCollum’s bill has just 23 cosponsors; there were more, but several Congress members – Rep. Rosa DeLauro [D-CT-3] and Rep. Debbie Dingell [D-MI-12] – removed their names.
Legislation protecting Israel from criticism, on the other hand, has enjoyed broad support. For example, H.Res.246 garnered 351 cosponsors before passing the House – even though the bill is almost certainly unconstitutional. (Read about other pro-Israel legislation here.)
Why is it that this bill – designed merely to refuse to bankroll a foreign country’s unlawful actions – can’t get traction?
The mainstream media taboo answer is the millions of dollars the Israel lobby directs into the coffers of those politicians willing to offer legislative protection to Israel. Those whose loyalty slips don’t just lose funding – they see it channeled to an opponent.
Pro-Israel legislators need plausible excuses for their refusal to get behind H.R.2407 – and they have developed several.
Their unwillingness to protect Palestinian children is based on verifiably false assumptions about the bill itself, Rep. McCollum’s character, and most of all, Palestinians.
“Phony” and “invented”
A recent Times of Israel editorial exemplifies the standard response to calls for Palestinian justice. It asserts that “a terrorist organization had a major hand in writing [H.R.2407],” and that the bill contains “lies and misrepresentations made by anti-Israel NGOs” and employs “phony human rights rhetoric.”
Jewish Press states, “The bill makes ample use of hostile, inaccurate and often misleading reports.”
NGO Monitor (a pro-Israel “watchdog”) claims McCollum’s legislation is based on “invented international legal claims.”
StandWithUs, an organization known for using smear tactics to discredit pro-Palestinian groups, suggests that “if the sponsors of this campaign were truly supportive of human rights, they would call out Palestinian leaders” instead of blaming Israel for its actions against children.
None of the organizations offer evidence to back up their claims.
Susan George of Progressive Zionists of California (PZC) denigrates the alleged “singling out” of Israel in McCollum’s bill:
We should be talking about children everywhere and how they’re treated, and yet, what this [bill] is doing is saying that Israel is uniquely evil in its treatment [of children].
Notably, George makes no effort to deny the charges.
The charges against Israel from reputable organizations are consistent and damning. Ultimately, the above remarks aim to silence the call for justice.
Kill the messenger: McCollum is “a racist, prejudiced disgrace”
The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA)’s Mort Klein attacked Rep. McCollum herself, declaring that H.R.2407 “proves her ignorance and her unhinged hatred of the Jewish State of Israel…McCollum is a racist, prejudiced disgrace.” (Some analysts believe this now-popular strategy of attacking anyone who criticizes Israel as “anti-Semitic,” undermines the fight against actual anti-Semitism.)
Ido Levy of the J’accuse Coalition for Justice (“a think tank dedicated to combating antisemitism, anti-Zionism, and anti-Israel bias”) uses the now-familiar anti-Semitism formula for rejecting the truths behind H.R.2407:
It’s true that Israel’s control of the West Bank and frequent conflicts with Gaza have resulted in the detention of — and occasional use of armed force against — Palestinian youth. But stating or implying that Israelis intentionally target Palestinian children…crosses a clear line into anti-Semitism.
He neglects to explain how the bill is anti-Semitic.
Additionally Levy states that “despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary” (evidence which he does not provide), “[the bill] paints Israel as an evil entity that either specifically targets children, or doesn’t care if children get targeted.”
Actually, Israel does specifically target Palestinian children: although the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a “child” as “every human being below the age of 18 years,” Israel defines children in two different ways. Israelis are considered children through age 18, but Palestinians, only through age 16. Israel protects its children for two more years of their lives.
Mellman adds that McCollum’s views on Israel do not represent the Democratic party – however, polling expert Grant Smith has pointed out that, while most Democratic politicians remain staunchly pro-Israel, Dem voters (and some progressive Dem politicians) are growing dissatisfied with Israel.
ZOA also attacked a progressive Jewish organization for its endorsement of H.R.2407 as “nothing other than a case of moral inversion, the product of moral confusion.” (Moral inversion is a phenomenon in which a society’s conceptions of right and wrong switch places.)
ZOA insists that “the Israeli military is the most scrupulous in the world in seeking to avoid killing or harming protected persons under international law, including Palestinian Arab children…” – ignoring massive quantities of factual reporting on persistent use of force against the children, as documented by Israeli and Western, as well as Palestinian media.
Allegation: child conscription by Hamas
In response to McCollum’s No Way To Treat a Child (NWTTAC) legislation, StandWithUs produced a booklet on “the plight of Palestinian child soldiers” – perpetuating the canard that Palestinian resistance groups press children into service, especially as suicide bombers.
In fact, Hamas has been on record since 2004 at least in its opposition to the practice; however, wherever there is conflict in the world, underage youths long to be “freedom fighters,” and invariably some volunteer for the cause.
In a detailed report covering 2004-2011, Defense of Children International (DCI) documented 26 cases of Palestinian minors participating in hostilities – by choice:
This participation ranges from openly bearing arms and launching rockets, to performing subsidiary roles, such as scouting and cooking.
in all 26 cases (100 percent) the evidence indicates that the children were not forcefully conscripted, but volunteered to join a group or to participate in hostilities. When asked why they volunteered, the children gave reasons ranging from patriotism to the ‘oppression’ of the occupation and the killing and imprisonment of family members…such involvement does not appear to be either widespread or systematic.
The StandWithUs propaganda relied not on fact, but on the demonization of a resistance organization trying to end a 53-year occupation and 13-year blockade of its people. StandWithUs failed to address the natural tendency of young men to volunteer, or the environment of hopelessness in which Palestinians live.
Israel’s child soldiers
Interestingly, the Haganah (precursor for the Israeli Defense Forces – IDF) established entire battalions in 1948 made up of underage men and women – at least 3,000 total. A Ha’aretz review of the book “Gadna Jerusalem in 1948,” lists some of the youths’ responsibilities during the so-called “War of Independence.”
One of the first targets they were sent to, in April 1948, was the village of Deir Yassin, on the western edge of Jerusalem, which had just been attacked by the Etzel and Lehi Jewish underground groups. [After their commander surveyed the Palestinian bodies house by house] the youths in his units bur[ied] them.
These boys and girls were the No. 2’s of the soldiers, and manned the handful of machine guns in the Jewish Quarter, evacuated the wounded…relayed messages and served the fighters hot meals under fire…Gadna units also took part in guarding checkpoints and were used as messengers, often at great risk.
[The book is a] riveting testimony to the mobilization of young people and to their readiness to sacrifice all, including their lives, for a just national cause.
The book’s author found nobility in the sacrifice of children.
One particular Israeli celebrity child soldier was Yaakov Fadida. He was allowed to fight at age 14, and died at 15 – but he was not the youngest. Nissim Gini, a lookout and courier, is considered “the youngest of any soldier killed in Israel’s wars,” having died at the age of ten.
As for modern-day child recruitment, Defense for Children International and others have reported that Israeli authorities regularly attempt to recruit Palestinian minors as informants and human shields (more on human shields below). Often, children are solicited to become informers while they are being interrogated without an adult present.
Allegation: “recruitment” games
StandWithUs accuses Hamas of recruiting children through video games, and points to “Liberation of Palestine” as an example. StandWithUs is alarmed by the game’s objective: to “strengthen the national culture and plant desire for the liberation of Palestine in the hearts of the players, especially children.” This idea – that nationalism and liberation are bad – flies in the face of the international agreements which guarantee the right to participate in cultural life, and liberty to all people.
The game (which was not developed by Hamas) offers both diplomacy and resistance as strategies to free Palestinians from the illegal occupation, blockade, and apartheid.
In condemning this game, StandWithUs fails to recognize why Palestinians need liberation and ignores the reality that resistance against occupation – even armed resistance – is permitted under international law.
Israeli video game: bonus points for bombing hospitals
StandWithUs is also silent on violent Israeli video games. For example, in “Raid Gaza,” players have three minutes to kill as many Palestinians as possible – with bonus points for bombing hospitals and schools.
As is plain from the third screen grab, the game boasts of high civilian casualty rates.
Palestinian and Israeli camps
In yet another attempt to demonize Palestinians, StandWithUs highlights “Hamas camps” that provide military-style training, as well as sports and first aid.
One difference between Israeli and Palestinian camps is that Israeli camps literally import children – and families – from around the world for military training, and export the experience to the West. Camp Mesorah, a Jewish sports camp in central New York, highlights “IDF training”; its promotional video features the Israeli flag. One former camper and staffer who saw the video was disturbed: “I draw the line at [Israeli] child soldiers,” she said. “I’m shocked even more people aren’t outraged.”
StandWithUs further demonizes Palestinians with accusations against Palestinian Authority (PA) textbooks, which allegedly incite Palestinian children to “kill Israelis and sacrifice themselves as ‘martyrs’ to destroy Israel.”
Significantly again, no evidence is provided, nor is there any reference to a comprehensive three-year investigation – “the most definitive and balanced study to date” – funded by the US State Department.
The report indicates that, while both Palestinian and Israeli textbooks lacked “objectivity and balance,” incitement and demonization were “extremely rare” (for example, in almost 10,000 pages of Palestinian textbooks analyzed, only six negative depictions of Israelis or Jews were found).
The report found occasional “references to martyrdom and dying for one’s land and liberty” in not only the Palestinian books, but strikingly, the Israeli books as well.
The Israeli Ministry of Education refused to cooperate in the study and rejected its conclusions as biased:
[I]t is a ‘study’ with findings that were predetermined…and it certainly does not reliably reflect reality…The attempt to create a parallel between the Israeli education system and the Palestinian education system…lacks any basis in reality…
The Ministry of Education chose not to cooperate with bodies that wish to slander the Israeli education system and the state of Israel.
The PA commended the study, which it felt vindicated its many assertions that its textbooks are free of incitement.
Another study conducted by an Israeli academic and researcher – resulting in the publication “Palestine in Israeli Textbooks” – revealed that “all the racist categories that you can imagine…are there in Israeli textbooks.” Author Nurit Peled-Elhanan pointed out that
the whole world slanders Palestinian education without knowing anything about it…and nobody controls and monitors the Israeli education. Now, Palestinian education can not be racist because it is so controlled and monitored by the whole world…[When it comes to Israeli textbooks, Palestinians] are not represented at all…only as problems. And to represent people as problems is racism…This is all the children know of their Arab neighbors.
In 2014, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu summed up the entrenched Israeli viewpoint, that Palestinians are to blame for the violence perpetrated against them. He employed a string of tropes to excuse the lopsided (at that time, 21-to-1) death toll ratio from Israel’s summer attack on Gaza:
We use anti-missile systems to protect our civilians. They use their civilians to protect their missiles. That’s the difference. So, against such a cynical, brutal, heartless enemy, we try to minimize civilian casualties…and all civilian casualties are unintended by us but actually intended by Hamas…They want the more dead, the better.
This racist rhetoric – that the leadership in Gaza is inhumane and wants a high body count – has been used consistently by Israeli leaders for years to dehumanize Palestinians. When everyone, including civilians, is considered dangerous, it becomes logical and even necessary to carry out atrocities against them.
The land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people…The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people…The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people…
“Human shield” myth
The myth that Palestinians routinely use children as human shields is essential to Israel’s claim of innocence in bloodshed. It has been used repeatedly to shift the blame for high casualty rates, and to repair its reputation after especially brutal episodes of state violence toward Palestinian civilians.
While allegations abound, it is hard to find any evidence of Palestinian resisters using individuals as human shields during these times. Oddly enough, however, documented testimony – often video proof – is readily available, demonstrating that Israeli soldiers used Palestinians (in many cases, children) as human shields in 2009, 2014, and 2018.
In fact, until 2005, it was legal for Israeli soldiers to use Palestinians as human shields. The Israeli High Court finally outlawed the practice after seven Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups petitioned the court, declaring that the practice was a breach of international law. (The Israeli Defense Ministry, hoping to continue the use of human shields, appealed the decision; the court upheld its decision.)
Israel has also used the “human shield” accusation against Hamas for allegedly putting civilians – including children – at risk by hiding weapons inside schools and hospitals, which Israel felt obligated to bomb; more recently Israel has charged that Hamas fighters hide among children and civilians in the Great March of Return.
While Hamas did store weapons in some vacant civilian buildings – and the world judged Hamas harshly for it – Israel is one of the world’s military superpowers, and was under no obligation to bomb those sites – or the many other civilian sites it has targeted – fully aware that civilians (usually children, and only rarely weapons) were present. In many cases, the Israeli military has unnecessarily bombed apartment buildings full of people in order to assassinate a single alleged Hamas member at home with his family.
(B’Tselem reports that about 59% of 3,761 Palestinians killed in Israel’s last three invasions were civilians, while 11% of the 79 Israelis killed were civilians; 923 Palestinian children and one Israeli child were killed. Israel uses the same argument to explain the killing of hundreds of unarmed Palestinian protesters.)
Living in denial
The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) packages its indictment of H.R.2407 in an idealistic view of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), positing that “the Israeli military is the most scrupulous in the world in seeking to avoid killing or harming protected persons under international law.”
The facts indicate otherwise. Embedded within the Israeli military is a culture of impunity, and the IDF’s many human rights violations are either ignored or, as in the case of Elor Azaria, excused.
In 2016, when IDF medic Elor Azaria was caught on video shooting an incapacitated Palestinian in the head, Israeli PM Netanyahu preemptively shut down criticism by declaring, “Any challenge to the morality of the IDF is outrageous and unacceptable. The soldiers…maintain high ethical values while courageously fighting against bloodthirsty murderers.” When Azaria was convicted of manslaughter, Netanyahu called for a pardon.
Ultimately, Azaria served nine months of an 18-month sentence and returned from prison to a hero’s welcome.
Israel and its supporters describe Rep. Betty McCollum’s bill – and Rep. McCollum herself – in hostile terms; they describe the Palestinian people as ruthless, spreading hate through children’s video games, summer camps, and textbooks. In each case the allegations are disingenuous: they either contradict the facts, or they are equally true of Israel. One Al Jazeera editorial put it,
Morally, the charge intimates that the Palestinians are savages…[that] Palestinians of Gaza have no problem sending their sons and daughters to the front lines. The subtext is that civilized people protect their children while Palestinians sacrifice them.
StandWithUs and other pro-Israel organizations notably do not dispute the reports of arrest, imprisonment, and torture of Palestinian children. Rather, they ignore reports from legitimate sources, and claim – without evidence – that Palestinian children are part of a suicidal culture built around hatred of Jews.
They further suggest that Israel is merely managing this toxic situation as humanely as possible, as it removed record numbers of children from their homes and puts them in prison to “prevent violent attacks” (in reality in nearly all cases, because they allegedly threw a stone).
StandWithUs sums it up in their booklet: “If Palestinian children were not being indoctrinated into carrying out violent terrorist attacks, there would be no arrests.”
Setting aside for a moment the gross inaccuracy of this statement, StandWithUs fails to take into account the deep trauma and humiliation that inform most Palestinians from a very young age, and the brutal occupation under which most have spent their entire lives. Rather than implicate Israel for the mindset of disenfranchised Palestinians, it implies that there is something wrong with Palestinians.
It is troubling to see Palestinians blamed for the genocide they are enduring – and even more horrifying to realize that it is part of a worldwide pattern targeting the most vulnerable, and blaming them for the violence they suffer. The dangers of “driving while Black,” the phenomenon of “kids in cages,” and threats to “water protectors” are evidence that colonial violence lives.
Returning to Al Jazeera,
protesters are increasingly conceived as lawful targets and…repertoires of violence as well as the legal justifications used in war have entered the realm of civilian life and are being normalized.
The most vulnerable of the vulnerable are children.
Children in Israel and occupied Palestine suffer not only from imprisonment, torture, bombing, starvation, and lack of medicine, food, water, and electricity, but less directly from trauma and hopelessness – and this has been the case for three generations.
There is no valid excuse for opposing H.R.2407. ZOA, StandWithUs, and other groups clinging to falsehoods and denial need to engage in Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), and a good place to start is with Palestinian children.
Kathryn Shihadah is staff writer for If Americans Knew. She blogs at Palestine Home.