‘Unchilding’ of Palestinian children

28th Jun 2019
‘Unchilding’ of Palestinian children

Dr Samah Jabr, Victoria Britten, Prof Shalboub-Kervorkian & Prof Jacqueline Rose (Photo: Sarah Sheriff)

Sarah Sheriff

A conference opened by playwright, journalist and campaigner, Victoria Brittain compared the experience of the Palestinian children with that of children brutalised by South Africa’s apartheid government; “there was little difference”, she said.

Held on March 8 & 9 at Birkbeck College University of London, ‘Palestinian Childhoods: Human Rights, Mental Health and Resistance’ heard shocking details of the brutalisation of children living under Occupation. It was a conference jointly sponsored by the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research (BISR) and the UK Palestine Mental Health Network (UKPMHN) amongst others.

The keynote address by Professor Nadera Shalhoub-Kervorkian from the Hebrew University and author of ‘Security Theology, Surveillance and the Politics of Fear,’ proposed the notion that children are being systematically “unchilded” – not just with bullets but educationally, emotionally and psychologically.

Researching for her books, she interviewed trapped Gazans. She found that the uncertainties of everyday life profoundly affected children, and motivated their actions and their longings. They had no safe space to just be and just be happy. She recorded the mother of a Gaza-based child who asked these questions of her child at the Professor’s request: “Why do want to go back to Haifa; you’ve never seen it.” Child replies: “I’ve seen it; I’ve seen it in your eyes, in my grandparents’ eyes and in your hearts”. Another child said: “I go to the March because I can play, I can’t play at home, it’s prison”; another: “you want me to stay at home and be safe, where is home? Where is it safe?”

The Professor deduced that “Return” for many of the children means trying to have a childhood that they’ve lost. Going to the March is an opportunity to be free. A further interviewee: “They have every power, they steal everything but they can’t steal our memories and our longing.” Having said that, with the Nakba Law, the commemoration of Nakba of 1948 is forbidden. A child born in Jerusalem is often not granted a birth certificate so can be easily singled out and deprived of residency rights. In Haifa graveyards she herself saw as a child, erased by Israeli buildings.

Collective memory and history are under attack; this is systematically and determinedly an attack on Palestinian existence – as if by erasing this, Israel’s is total victory.

Dr Samah Jabr, Psychiatrist, academic, writer and member of the Health Ministry was the second keynote speaker. The first point she made was that the age profile of Palestinians is a pyramid with a huge base of young people 0-19. It is totally unlike the age profile elsewhere. These young people are extremely vulnerable to the brutalization and humiliation of their parents, and by the authority gap that results from this.

One consequence is that children grow up too fast – often being a support to a parent if their partner is incarcerated or killed. This ongoing psychological pressure is understood, but barely catered for, by the health system. The fault though is not just with the Israelis and the West – the Palestinian Authority itself spends 27 per cent of its budget on protecting settlers, more than the 18 per cent and 11.5 per cent on education and health.  As a result, there is a drastically low number of mental health professionals to meet massive need.

There are no psychiatric children’s beds in hospitals. There is a ratio of 0.04 per cent psychiatrist/100000 Palestinians and 1 student counsellor/780 students. Additionally, daily nutritional deprivation affects mental health, for example, malnutrition and anaemia is very high among Palestinian children.

And the future is grim; traditionally, she added, a highly educated Palestinian population which was valued in the Middle East helped gain revenue for Palestinians. However, in recent years, education has become a lottery; first there is no pre-schooling and then schools are being deprived of money with funding only offered by the Israeli Education ministry if Palestinians ‘Judaize’ the curriculum and the school environment.

Not only that, but children are brutalized on their journey to and from school resulting in a high drop-out rate because of intimidation. There was a graphic description of this experience given by Dr Shalhoub-Kervorkian who participates in direct action by accompanying children on their way to school in Jerusalem. She said she has often documented specifically sexualised and gendered violence by soldiers against school age girls and boys – hijabs pulled off in public, “equivalent to strip-searching” and, in forcing boys to bend down and remove their socks, while they point the guns behind them, it is clear what the symbolism is.

Reflecting on her patients, Dr Jabr said that she has seen imprisoned and tortured children become troubled, emasculated and disempowered fathers (and mothers) who create a vacuum within the family.

Youngsters feel the need to fill this vacuum in order to restore dignity to themselves and others in their family. Children often become the means of support to a mother whose husband is in prison, thus losing their childhood. The same process occurs when parents, especially fathers are injured/killed: they are not able to defend their families, authority is fatally undermined, and so children, especially vulnerable teenagers look to other “heroes”’. It is important to realize, the conference heard “it is not just gun to body, but gun to mind, emotion, childhood and to hope”.

The morning session concluded with a response from Professor Jacqueline Rose of Queen Mary, University of London. Many issues arising from the presentations were addressed but for Professor Shalhoub-Kervorkian, a primary issue was to correctly label what was happening to Palestinian children.

Previously, the writings of Ward Churchill (author of Kill the Indian, Save the Child), on the genocide of Native Americans (and later Australian aboriginals) had been used to posit the notion of Palestinian children also suffering “stolen childhoods.” However, what was happening in Palestine is totally different, she argued. Palestinian children were being “unchilded”; cruelly and systematically dispossessed of childhood.

The factors enabling it to happen were discussed too and the political aspects could not be overlooked it was argued. Dr Martin Kemp of the UKPMHH reminded participants that colonial-settlerism was obviously one key; another: the virulent racism which had been imported by the Zionist immigrants from Europe and was so ruthless that not even children would be spared.

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