• Monday, March 04, 2024
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BusinessDay

Children of the occupation: growing up in Palestine

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The rough track is an unmarked turning across a primeval landscape of rock and sand under a vast cobalt sky. Our Jeep bounces between boulders and dust-covered gorse bushes before beginning a bone-jolting descent from the high ridge into a deep valley. An Israeli army camp comes into view, then the tiny village of Jinba: two buildings, a few tents, a scattering of animal pens. A pair of military helicopters clatter overhead. The air smells of sheep.

At the end of this track in the southern West Bank, 12-year-old Nawal Jabarin lives in a cave. She was born in the gloom beneath its low, jagged roof, as were two of her brothers, and her father a generation earlier. Along the rock-strewn track that connects Jinba to the nearest paved road, Nawal’s mother gave birth to another baby, unable to reach hospital in time; on the same stretch of flattened earth, Nawal’s father was beaten by Israeli settlers in front of the terrified child.

The cave and an adjacent tent are home to 18 people: Nawal’s father, his two wives and 15 children. The family’s 200 sheep are penned outside. An ancient generator that runs on costly diesel provides power for a maximum of three hours a day. Water is fetched from village wells, or delivered by tractor at up to 20 times the cost of piped water. During the winter, bitter winds sweep across the desert landscape, slicing through the tent and forcing the whole family to crowd into the cave for warmth. “In winter, we are stacked on top of one another,” Nawal tells me.

She rarely leaves the village. “I used to ride in my father’s car. But the settlers stopped us. They beat my father before my eyes, cursing, using foul language. They took our things and threw them out of the car.”

Even home is not safe. “The soldiers come in [the cave] to search. I don’t know what they’re looking for,” she says. “Sometimes they open the pens and let the sheep out. In Ramadan, they came and took my brothers. I saw the soldiers beat them with the heel of their guns. They forced us to leave the cave.”

Despite the hardships of her life, Nawal is happy. “This is my homeland, this is where I want to be. It’s hard here, but I like my home and the land and the sheep.” But, she adds, “I will be even happier if we are allowed to stay.”

Nawal is one of a second generation of Palestinians to be born into occupation. Her birth came 34 years after Israel seized the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem during the six-day war. Military law was imposed on the Palestinian population, and soon afterwards Israel began to build colonies on occupied land under military protection. East Jerusalem was annexed in a move declared illegal under international law.

The first generation – Nawal’s parents and their peers – are now approaching middle age, their entire lives dominated by the daily grind and small humiliations of an occupied people. Around four million Palestinians have known nothing but an existence defined by checkpoints, demands for identity papers, night raids, detentions, house demolitions, displacement, verbal abuse, intimidation, physical attacks, imprisonment and violent death. It is a cruel mosaic: countless seemingly unrelated fragments that, when put together, build a picture of power and powerlessness. Yet, after 46 years, it has also become a kind of normality.

For the young, the impact of such an environment is often profound. Children are exposed to experiences that shape attitudes for a lifetime and, in some cases, have lasting psychological consequences. Frank Roni, a child protection specialist for Unicef, the United Nations’ agency for children, who works in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, speaks of the “inter-generational trauma” of living under occupation. “The ongoing conflict, the deterioration of the economy and social environment, the increase in violence – this all impacts heavily on children,” he says. “Psychological walls” mirror physical barriers and checkpoints. “Children form a ghetto mentality and lose hope for the future, which fuels a cycle of despair,” Roni says.

But their experiences are inevitably uneven. Many children living in the major Palestinian cities, under a degree of self-government, rarely come into contact with settlers or soldiers, while such encounters are part of daily life for those in the 62% of the West Bank under full Israeli control, known as Area C. Children in Gaza live in a blockaded strip of land, often growing up in extreme economic hardship, and with direct and shocking experience of intense warfare. In East Jerusalem, a high proportion of Palestinian children grow up in impoverished ghettoes, encroached upon by expanding Israeli settlements or with extremist settlers taking over properties in their midst.

In the South Hebron Hills, the shepherds who have roamed the area for generations now live alongside ideologically and religiously driven Jews who claim an ancient biblical connection to the land and see the Palestinians as interlopers. They have built gated settlements on the hilltops, serviced with paved roads, electricity and running water, and protected by the army. The settlers and soldiers have brought fear to the cave-dwellers: violent attacks on the local Palestinian population are frequent, along with military raids and the constant threat of forcible removal from their land.

Nawal’s village is inside an area designated in the 1980s by the Israeli army as “Firing Zone 918” for military training. The army wants to clear out eight Palestinian communities on the grounds that it is unsafe for them to remain within a military training zone; they are not “permanent residents”. A legal battle over the fate of the villages, launched before Nawal was born, is still unresolved.

Her school, a basic three-room structure, is under a demolition order, as is the only other building in the village, the mosque, which is used as an overspill classroom. Both were constructed without official Israeli permits, which are hardly ever granted. Haytham Abu Sabha, Nawal’s teacher, says his pupils’ lives are “very hard. The children have no recreation. They lack the basic things in life: there is no electricity, high malnutrition, no playgrounds. When they get sick or are hurt, it’s hard getting them to hospital. We are forced to be primitive.”

The children are also forced to be brave. Nawal insists she is not afraid of the soldiers. But when I ask if she has cried during the raids on her home, she hesitates before nodding almost imperceptibly, unwilling to admit to her fears. Psychologists and counsellors working with Palestinian children say this reluctance to acknowledge and vocalise frightening experiences compounds the damage caused by the event itself. “Children say they are not afraid of soldiers, but their body language tells you something different,” says Mona Zaghrout, head of counselling at the YMCA in Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem. “They feel ashamed to say they are afraid.”

Ahed Tamimi, 12, in Nabi Saleh Ahed Tamimi, 12, plays hopscotch, likes movies about mermaids and teases her brothers at home in Nabi Saleh. Photograph: Quique Kierszenbaum for the Guardian

Like Nawal, 12-year-old Ahed Tamimi boldly asserts that she, too, has no fear of soldiers, before quietly admitting that sometimes she is afraid. Ahed’s apparent fearlessness catapulted her to a brief fame a year ago when a video of her angrily confronting Israeli soldiers was posted online. The girl was invited to Turkey, where she was hailed as a child hero.

Amid tree-covered hills almost three hours’ drive north of Jinba, Nabi Saleh is a village of around 500 people, most of whom share the family name of Tamimi. From Ahed’s home, the Israeli settlement of Halamish is visible across a valley. Founded in 1977, it is built partly on land confiscated from local Palestinian families. An Israeli army base is situated next to the settlement.