Al-Jazeera / November 23, 2021
Under Israeli occupation, Palestinian children are not safe even at their own homes.
Cruelty, when considered in the abstract, can lose its potency.
What I mean by this is that watching how and why cruelty is exacted on innocents – often with gratuitous and cavalier malevolence – tends to provoke a different, more visceral reaction than reading about how and why cruelty is exacted on innocents on the dry page.
This column will, I suspect, be an example of that phenomenon. Here is another.
Late last year, a 104-page report – the important product of the collaboration of several Israeli human rights groups which took almost three years to complete – was published.
Based on interviews with scores of Palestinian victims and Israeli perpetrators, the study – titled Life Exposed – documented, in clinical, maddening detail, how the violent practice of “home invasions” in the occupied West Bank has had, and continues to have, profound psychological and other lasting consequences on the children, women, and men whose homes are suddenly invaded in the early morning hours.
At the time, I read the report. I read accounts of the report. But I did not write about the report, reasoning, I suppose, that reporting by others would suffice. I was wrong. I should have.
In retrospect, I was not moved to pen a column because the appalling violations and injustices the report’s writers laid bare – however shocking – registered largely in my mind and not my heart.
There was an emotional distance between me and the disturbing facts set out on page after page of Life Exposed.
I reckon that the report’s authors, in fashioning their study, grappled with this familiar gulf – how to pierce readers’ hearts and minds not only to draw attention to the inhumanity they exposed, but to prompt them to raise their voices to challenge, denounce and oppose the routine, thuggish desecration of homes – and, of course, the people who live in them – in occupied Palestine.
I was reminded of my sorry failure when, earlier this week, a video of yet another home invasion on yet another Palestinian family trying to survive Israel’s relentless occupation was shared widely on social media, and, as far I can gather, broadcast only by a few news organizations sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.
The short, foul video confirms every word of the long, exhaustive report. The cruelty perpetrated by Israeli “soldiers” on vivid, infuriating display sears into the heart, soul and mind.
While the video is part of a library of images – still and moving – that have recorded the outrageous acts committed by an occupying army against Palestinian children and women, there is a peculiarly sinister quality to what we are compelled to witness here.
The home invasion took place on the evening of September 3 in Hebron. A pack of heavily-armed Israeli soldiers pushes their way into the once-quiet home.
One of the Palestinian women holding up a cell phone tells the invaders that she works for B’Tselem – an Israeli-based human rights group. The Israeli invaders are unmoved.
One invader orders the children, wearing mostly T-shirts and looking puzzled, to gather in a room. The children, many of whom were sleeping, file in. One girl waves at the camera. Another wipes at tears. Others stand mute with arms crossed. There are, by my count, 16 children in all, including a baby, held by another Palestinian woman. They face the camera like a herd of lambs in a pen.
An invader claims the home invasion was prompted by rock-throwing. This is likely a convenient fabrication. As Life Exposed makes clear – citing the testimony of Israeli soldiers – home invasions are conducted arbitrarily, without a court-issued search warrant. One of the explicit aims is to traumatize, to entrench fear and uncertainty into the already fractured lives of Palestinian children.
An invader pulls out his cell phone to take a picture of the corralled, bewildered children. Speaking English, a Palestinian protests: “You like when soldiers come and take pictures of your kids?”
The invader remains silent and smug. He knows that since he brandishes a gun, he wields the power – the power of force and intimidation.
Then, the true nature of the invader’s vile cruelty reveals itself. It is a mixture of cocky arrogance and a casual, enjoyable impulse to degrade and humiliate Palestinian children in the presence of their worried kin.
With a smirk, he tells the children to say “cheese”.
It is a halting, breathtaking moment that should shock anyone with a conscience.
But this Israeli invader’s cruelty is borne of an abiding sense of superiority and impunity. The invader knows, by virtue of the weapon and nationality he carries, that he can do whatever he wants to those Palestinian children and his superiors and most Israelis will defend, if not applaud, his deliberate cruelty.
Still, in a show of poignant resistance, the Palestinian mothers shout: “No.”
Some of the children, too young to understand the soldier’s contempt for their home and ancestry, oblige him. Once again, a Palestinian mother shouts: “No.”
“They want,” the smiling invader says, before asking the children to say “cheese” anew. This time loudly asserting his unquestionable dominion not only over these Palestinian families and their home but their fates, too.
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Too many Israelis and their apologists abroad can never, will never, acknowledge that the soldiers who invaded that Palestinian home in September, and thousands of other homes invaded before and to come, are guilty of the cruelty the rest of us can see.
Instead, they have blamed and will blame Palestinian children for the obvious malice visited upon them by Israeli soldiers, who, despite the evidence collected even by Israeli human rights groups, escape any sanction for their crimes.
And these are crimes, with a litany of indelible repercussions for the generations of Palestinian families who have had to endure them – whether or not Israelis and their apologists abroad will admit the truth.
The home invasions inflict deep psychological harm on Palestinian families. Children, in particular, become depressed, anxious, fearful. Whatever sense of stability or privacy they enjoyed at home is instantly replaced by constant worry and dread of the inevitability of more jarring violence.
Paralyzed by foreboding, children lose interest in school, retreat into silence or become irritable and sullen, unable to cope with the unpredictability that is now a defining aspect of their turbulent lives.
Ponder this astounding finding: “While lifetime prevalence for PTSD in children ranges from 6.8% to 12.2% worldwide, among Palestinian children living in the West Bank it is estimated to be 34.1%–50.4%.”
The pursuit of security has little to do with Israeli soldiers conducting home invasions. The overarching intent is to condition Palestinians into deference to Israeli authority by repeated and abrupt attacks on the centre of Palestinian life – the home.
That these premeditated assaults occur while Palestinian homes should be at rest and children asleep, is an unmistakable echo of the chilling modus operandi of other racist regimes who practiced apartheid on persecuted and entrapped peoples.
To deny this is to deny history.
In grudging reply to the Life Exposed report, in June Israel allegedly curtailed the use of “mapping” – a big part of the raison d’être for its home invasions.
The perverse objective of “mapping” is to create a photographic record of the layout of raided Palestinian homes in the West Bank, and, perhaps more importantly, of all their occupants, including infants and children for so-called “operational” purposes – which is a euphemism for terrorizing Palestinians.
Clearly, that pledge was a lie.
That happy soldier took a photograph of 16 children inside a home that he and his assault-rifle-toting chums invaded as a ghoulish memento and to add to Israel’s catalogue of Palestinian children it has “mapped” and injured in visible and invisible ways.
I am sure he and other callous Israelis are proud.
Andrew Mitrovica is an Al-Jazeera columnist based in Toronto