Palestinian Children and Israeli Soldiers: Perceptions of Banality and Abuse

Every day in the West Bank, Palestinian children meet Israeli soldiers and policemen. These interactions occur on the streets, in private homes, at checkpoints, and inside interrogation rooms. In many instances, the Palestinians are only a few years younger than their Israeli interlocutors, and the two may live in close proximity to one another. But each interaction between an armed Israeli and a civilian Palestinian is mediated by a larger geopolitical context of prolonged occupation, inequality, and violence. A Palestinian child and an Israeli soldier may interpret their meeting very differently: their perceptions of reality are shaped by past experiences and oral accounts or media portrayals of parallel situations. In extreme cases, the Israeli may regard the interaction as banal and quotidian, while the Palestinian experiences abuse and chronic trauma.

Bethlehem-based social worker Vicky Hosker has written about one such interaction between an Israeli soldier and a seven year-old Palestinian girl named Yara. While passing through a local checkpoint, Yara dropped a candy wrapper on the ground. A soldier reprimanded the girl by casually threatening to imprison her for littering. The soldier, not realizing that arbitrary imprisonment at the hands of Israeli forces is a real and chronic threat for many Palestinian children, likely expected the girl to interpret the threat as a joke. But the comment terrified Yara, who later hid in a wardrobe to escape the soldiers who, she imagined, would arrest her during the night.

Israeli soldiers may also subscribe to the widespread perception that Palestinians are somehow more resistant to trauma than their Israeli peers. This idea takes many forms. One Islamophobic theory holds that Muslim parents habituate their young children to violence as preparation for sectarian warfare—an idea that was at the heart of a 2009 YouTube video that was selectively edited to imply that the Palestinian militant group Hamas systematically brainwashed children in the Gaza Strip and trained them as soldiers.

Palestinian sympathizers often adopt a variation of this theory by marveling at the apparent strength and steadfastness of Palestinian children exposed to political violence. At a screening of the documentary Five Broken Cameras—which shows Palestinian children tear-gassed at demonstrations, arrested late at night, and dead after clashes with Israeli soldiers—an Israeli teenager commented that her Palestinian peers were “coping beautifully” with the occupation. A video of the screening, circulated online by Cameras co-director Guy Davidi, did not indicate that the teenager or her classmates understood the chronic trauma that the film’s young subjects may experience.

In a number of instances, Israeli soldiers and police officers have permitted the production and release of photographs and video footage documenting their interactions with Palestinian children. The free circulation of such documents—which occasionally record serious violations of international human rights law—indicates that many armed Israelis do not perceive their interactions with Palestinian children as abusive. In February 2013, an Israeli soldier published a photograph on the social media website Instagram that allegedly showed a young Palestinian boy in the crosshairs of a sniper rifle. In 2010, an Israeli photographer was permitted to accompany a police unit during a raid on a family’s home in East Jerusalem. The photographer later published images of police officers pointing automatic weapons at very young children. And in a moving 2011 testimony to the Israeli veterans group Breaking the Silence, a former soldier stated that his unit had filmed themselves arresting a Palestinian teenager late at night. The soldier subsequently screened the footage to his mother and sister before realizing, in horror, that the arrest had been reprehensible.

When a Palestinian child meets an Israeli solider, the two may understand their interaction in sharply contrasting ways. The Israeli may view the interaction as harmless and will have no qualms about recording her/his actions for posterity. The Palestinian, in contrast, will remember the interaction with fear and may experience psychological trauma as a result. The difference between these two perceptions has repercussions for both sides. For the Palestinian–the weaker party in nearly every such interaction–the repercussions are infinitely more severe.

ArrestsBorder PoliceBreaking the SilenceHouse incursionsSoldierstraumaWest Bank