Israeli elections and Palestinian children

By Jason Hart

The results from Israel’s elections are gradually trickling in. Although the make-up of the government may not become clear for some days or even weeks, two outcomes are likely. Firstly, Benjamin Netanyahu will continue as Prime Minister. Secondly, the extreme right, who have gained a significantly increased share of the vote, may well become partners in the coalition Netanyahu puts together. ‘Ha-bayit Ha-Yehudi’ (‘The Jewish Home’) – a party whose brand of ultra-nationalism would raise alarm bells were it to attract popular support in elections in any Western European country – won 10% of the seats in the Israeli Knesset.

While Netanyahu’s pursuit of settlement building has created a serious obstacle to peace talks with the Palestinians, rhetorical support for a negotiated solution has continued. Naftali Bennett, the leader of Ha-bayit Ha-Yehudi, offers no such rhetoric. Instead, he loudly articulates his implacable opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state. The recent Israeli election results thus provide yet more evidence that the prospects for negotiation are negligible, making it harder than ever for the political leaders of European and North American nations to speak with credibility about a ‘peace process’.

For many years Western governments have justified their failure to hold Israel accountable for its violations of international law and international human rights treaties by claiming that by making noise about such violations they might jeopardise the two-state solution. Meanwhile, these governments have maintained a steady stream of funding for humanitarian initiatives intended to ameliorate the suffering of ordinary Palestinian, generations of whom have endured systematic attack upon their lives and livelihoods. In 2010 Lord Patten, writing in his then capacity as head of NGO Medical Aid for Palestinians argued that “…we should never allow the international community to depend on the provision of continuing humanitarian relief as an excuse for diplomatic drift and the failure to confront intransigence. Organisations like Medical Aid for Palestinians do not exist so that others can duck their moral and political responsibilities.”[1]

As a student, teacher and researcher over the last two decades I have witnessed the consequences for Palestinian children of such “failure to confront intransigence”. Settler violence has increased in scale and intensity, access to basic resources and family reunification have been denied, and children as young as twelve continue to be arrested, detained and tried in conditions that violate basic tenets of international law. These are just some of the threats that young Palestinians have faced as Western governments remain largely mute in order, as they argue, not to imperil the prospects for peace.

According to globally agreed definition child protection work undertaken by humanitarian agencies in settings of emergency should seek “to prevent and respond to violence, exploitation and abuse”.[2] ‘Psychosocial programming’ has been a pronounced feature of humanitarian child protection efforts in the occupied Palestinian territory over recent years. This takes a variety of forms but is all, more or less explicitly, seeking to help the young cope with occupation or, as one United Nations publication puts it “to lead a normal life in abnormal conditions”.[3] Such work can properly be described as ameliorative rather than preventative in nature.

Over many years violence has been directed at young Palestinians as a tool to render life untenable to the point that their families will vacate areas upon which the Israeli government and settler movement has designs. Prevention of violence to children thus necessarily entails some form of engagement in the political realm, most obviously through advocacy that draws global attention to the ongoing protection crisis experienced by Palestinian children. Some humanitarians argue, however, that such action is at odds with the principle of neutrality. On the other hand, from a rights-based perspective – to which international law is theoretically foundational – non-engagement on the grounds of neutrality is highly questionable. The majority of organisations working on child protection in the oPt are avowedly rights-based in their approach and yet most commonly prioritise neutrality. Some produce occasional reports, mostly for local distribution; a larger number pass information about violations to other bodies such as the UN Security Council and some engage in ‘quiet diplomacy’ such as through organising the visit of parliamentarians from western countries. But consistent highlighting of Israeli violations sufficient to inform global public opinion and build the demand for change has not been witnessed to date.

The choice between silence in the name of humanitarian neutrality or public advocacy  on the basis of rights and law needs to be understood not simply as one of outlook or philosophy. Also vital to consider are the funding pressures upon child-focussed organisations given their reliance on governments and individuals keen to avert criticism of Israel.  If UN and international NGOs choose silence it is, to a considerable extent, because they perceive this to be necessary for their own self-protection. Their continued attention to assisting children in coping with the intolerable may be partially understood in this light. If such negligence in respect of the preventative aspects of child protection is to be overcome a profound shift on the part of donor governments is required. The recent upsurge of settlement building has yet to prompt such a shift, notwithstanding the hand-wringing of a few Western leaders. Perhaps the evidence from Israel’s elections of popular support for far-right politicians unabashed in their opposition to a Palestinian state may provoke public opinion across Europe and North America sufficient to increase the pressure on Western governments to act, at last.

[1] MAP (2010) Witness No.13 London: Medical Aid for Palestinians 816_witness_13.pdf

[2] UNICEF (2006) Child Protection Information Sheet. What is Child Protection? New York: UNICEF

[3] UNRWA and ECTAO (2009) 2009 Newsletter p.1. accessed 23.12.10

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