Among the hundreds already dead in the latest hostilities between Israel and Hamas, very many are children. And despite the killing of children being invoked by both sides as evidence of their enemy’s brutality, the death toll will no doubt continue to rise.
Because for decades now, neither Israel nor Hamas has shown any willingness to abide by a basic principle of international humanitarian law – that in the context of warfare, every effort should be made to spare the young.
This aspect of the conflict rarely receives the attention it deserves from politicians or the media. But it is a subject that has been central to my research for many years.
A 1977 addition to the Geneva conventions (article 77) states that: “Children shall be the object of special respect and shall be protected against any form of indecent assault.”
It goes on to say that the opposing sides should provide children with “the care and aid they require”. But there is scant evidence of this care being shown by either Hamas or Israel.
Meanwhile, countless Palestinian children die in bombardments of the Gaza Strip. In the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the killing of Palestinian children is a frequent occurrence that goes unpunished.
We also see a complete disregard for international law in the abduction of children by enemy forces. Following the recent Hamas attack on Israel, shocking reports have emerged of Israeli children taken hostage by Hamas and transported into the Gaza Strip alone or with their parents.
Also shocking is the longstanding and routine abduction of Palestinian children, some as young as 12. Arrest by Israeli forces typically takes place in the middle of the night. Children are transferred to prisons, often within Israel where they are commonly assaulted by guards, and denied access to legal representation and family.
Administrative detention often lasts for months, with release offered only after signing a confession, typically for throwing stones. But those confessions are obtained under threat of continued imprisonment.
Such violations continue with impunity. The mainstream media rarely report on violations of Palestinian children’s basic rights, while political leaders look the other way.
Humanitarian workers on the ground, many of whom I have interviewed in the occupied territories, generally feel unable to speak out. Although keenly aware of the violence visited upon Palestinian children, they are constrained by governmental donors eager not to alienate Israel’s political and business elites. Even when there is a major outbreak of violence, humanitarian organisations have little power to demand adherence to international law.
That said, Save the Children has condemned the current violence, saying the scale of the attacks in Israel and Gaza is causing damage that will endure long after the immediate crisis.
The sort of damage they are referring to was the subject of a recent study in which my colleagues and I explored the protection of refugee children in the Gaza Strip and Jordan. We looked at the threats they were exposed to, and how those threats could be reduced.
We found the situation in the two places to be markedly different. In Jordan, daily life was tough, but somehow families managed to maintain a bare existence. In the Gaza Strip, children were routinely exposed to mortal danger which rained down from the skies at any time. The helplessness of Palestinian parents was regularly laid bare.
As one mother in Gaza told us: “Honestly, […] I never feel safe, and I am always terrified that something bad might happen and hurt my children. They never feel safe or comfortable. They are not mentally or physically healthy.”
That interview was conducted a few months after a major outbreak of military violence in 2021 in which 66 Palestinian children were killed. Two years later, even greater hostilities are occurring.
Compounding the threat to children’s existence, Israel has announced that the 16 year blockade of Gaza will become even more punitive with the withholding of food, water, electricity and fuel. Meanwhile, major donors to the Palestinians, including the European Commission and the governments of Germany and Austria, are considering the suspension of aid.
The ability of Palestinian parents to protect their children is being comprehensively undermined as never before. And international law seems to count for nothing.