The denial of Palestinian childhood

A playground in the West Bank. Picture taken by Justin McIntosh, August 2004. Wikimedia Commons. (CC-BY-2.0).

Since Israel's latest aggression on Gaza began in October — described as  “a mass assassination factory — the literal and actual dehumanization of Palestinians has intensified. UNICEF has labeled Gaza “a graveyard for children” and “a living hell,” as a result of Israel's severe and unrelenting attacks. 

UN Special Rapporteur Francesca Albanese referred to the ‘deliberate unchilding from birth’ of Palestinians under Israel’s “forever occupation” which has caused “never-ending harm” to the population. However,  Israeli violence against Palestinian children is not a recent phenomenon. 

‘Unchilding’ Palestinians for generations 

At least 14,500 Palestinian children have been killed by Israel since October 7.  However, Israel’s abuses against Palestinian children before this war had already been thoroughly documented. Journalist Chris Hedges detailed violence by Israelis against Palestinian children in Gaza in his 2002 book War is a force that gives us meaning:

Children have been shot in other conflicts I have covered […] but I have never before watched soldiers entice children like mice into a trap and murder them for sport. […] ‘We all threw rocks,’ said ten-year-old Ahmed Moharb. ‘Over the loudspeaker the soldier told us to come to the fence to get chocolate and money. Then they cursed us. Then they fired a grenade. We started to run. They shot Ali in the back. I won’t go again. I am afraid.’

Palestinian scholar Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian — whose work focuses on trauma, state crimes and criminology, surveillance, gender violence, law and society and genocide studies — first coined the term “unchilding” in 2019, to critically examine the use of Palestinian children as leverage for political goals.  

Middle East Monitor reported that from 2000–2020, “3,000 children have been killed by Israeli occupation forces. Some were killed in front of the lenses of international media, including 11 year-old Muhammad Al-Durrah.” In 2021, Defence for Children International also highlighted Israel’s targeting of Palestinian children and Human Rights Watch noted a spike in Palestinian children killed by Israelis in the West Bank in August 2023.

Save the Children reported in 2020, 2022, and mid-2023 on Israel’s systematic punitive abuses and in-custody traumatization of Palestinian children, including strip searching. They stated that “the most common charge brought against children is stone throwing, for which the maximum sentence is 20 years.” 

Defense for Children International found that the majority of children prosecuted from 2013 to 2018 experienced abuse by Israelis while in custody. Ahmad Manasra became well known for spending his entire teenage years in prison, including two years in solitary confinement, leading to severe psychological deterioration. According to The Guardian, Israel’s mass incarceration of Palestinian children represents “a hidden universe of suffering that touched nearly every Palestinian home.”

Caption: Sign from a peaceful pro-Palestinian demonstration in Berlin on December 2, 2023. Photo by the author, used with permission.

News media’s role in furthering the denial of Palestinian childhood

Two articles by The Guardian’s Jason Burke, published on November 22 and 23, illustrate the denial of Palestinian childhood portrayed across news media. Burke noted in both articles, “the [Israeli] hostages to be freed are women and children, and the Palestinian prisoners are also women and people aged 18 and younger.”

The use of divergent language within the same article to refer to children parallels the die” versus “kill” hierarchy, which is used to downplay Palestinian versus Israeli fatalities in news media.

The Guardian articles followed an intense period marked by derogatory racist comments, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarks in October, where he called  Palestinians the “children of darkness” and “human animals.” 

The Guardian is not the only news agency to employ divergent, vague or otherwise imprecise language when referencing Palestinian children and babies. The Associated Press has referred to Palestinian children as “minors,” Sky News has described a 4 year-old as a “young lady,” and The Washington Post has used the term “fragile lives” instead of saying “premature babies.” Scanning the archived New York Times top headlines daily from November 22 to December 3 reveals barely a hint of Palestinian victims, certainly not reflecting the mass number of child fatalities that occurred during that period.

After publication, The Guardian amended both of the aforementioned articles to refer to Palestinians under 18 as “children.” In a note at the bottom of the articles to explain the change, they wrote, “Any insensitivity in the earlier expression was unintentional.” 

Queer Jewish influencer Matt Bernstein (mattxiv) stated on Instagram: “When we allow ourselves to view Palestinians as anything less than full human beings […] we become complicit in our own moral bankruptcy.”

The language used in news reporting is crucial to communicating key details to readers. A 2016 Columbia University study found that 59 percent of  shared links “went unclicked, and presumably unread,” underscoring the significance of news headlines in delivering information and influencing audiences. The words used in social media previews — such as the title and tagline — are critical for those who don’t read past the headlines to grasp the extent of the situation. 

Sign from a peaceful pro-Palestinian demonstration in Berlin on November 4, 2023. Quote is from Save the Children. Photo by the author. Used with permission.

Racialized children at high risk

The denial of childhood is not exclusive to Palestinians, and  valuable insights can be gained by examining other racialized groups also subjected to significant violence. 

In the United States, Black children are six times more likely than white children to be shot and killed by police. High-profile cases like the murders of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin, 16 year-old Ma'Khia Bryant, and 12 year-old Tamir Rice illustrate the excessive risk Black children face in their daily lives. 

Researcher Alisha Nguyen explains:

To justify dehumanizing treatment against Black children, White logic affirms that Black children are less innocent and therefore, should receive less protection and do not deserve the same level of tolerance compared to White children.

Rice was later described by Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association president Steve Loomis as “a 12-year-old in an adult body” as a means of justifying the excessive force used by the police officer who assassinated the sixth-grader.

Similar to the comments made by Loomis, there have been attempts to justify the murder of Palestinian children. Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman stated in radio interviews and on X on November 30, “There are no innocents in Gaza.” President Isaac Herzog shared the same sentiment.

There are no innocents in Gaza.

As activist and educator Wagatwe Wajuki said on X:

If you wonder why Black people identify with the fight for Palestinian liberation: the white media’s refusal to see our children as children resonates. […] Under white supremacy, childhood is racialized because they associate childhood with innocence and only white children are deemed innocent.

Israeli journalist Gideon Levy wrote in Haaretz of the children killed by Israel:

No explanation, no justification or excuse could ever cover up this horror. It would be best if Israel's propaganda machine didn't even try to. […] Horror of this scope has no explanation other than the existence of an army and government lacking any boundaries set by law or morality.

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