This week, children are back to school in Palestine. Some will find their school in ruins, and some will be missing schoolmates they had only a few months ago. Since the beginning of 2023, Israel has killed at least 38 Palestinian children, injured almost 1000, while 160 are lingering in Israeli jails. 2280 Palestinian children have been killed since January 2000.
Beyond the shocking numbers and the painful stories behind each case, there is an evident pattern in the targeting of Palestinian children and childhood. It is not a side effect, but rather a necessary component of Israel’s settler colonial project and apartheid regime.
The quest for sustainable oppression
Settler colonialism is, by definition, a long-term project of territorial conquest that substitutes the indigenous population with a settler population. For this effort to be enduring, it is fundamental for the colonizer to eliminate the Indigenous population or at least their resistance.
This “logic of elimination” is a central element of settler colonial societies across the world and includes the genocidal elimination of the people, their expulsion from the land, and a plethora of strategies to destructure, fragment, and debilitate the indigenous society. They aim to ensure that the next generation will no longer resist dispossession and oppression, and abandon claims to their rights. With every generation of insurgent indigenous people, the focus by the colonial powers on the destruction and/or control of education, childhood, and childbirth grows.
The imposition of a regime of apartheid is an attempt to create a sustainable colonial regime by eliminating the indigenous people from certain spaces and rights.
However, decision-makers of South Africa’s apartheid system already realized that such segregation creates rebellious–not docile–future generations. When in 1976, up to ten thousand students in South Africa came out in protest, the apartheid forces killed between 400 to 600 students and started brutal repression against children and youth. Between 1984 and 1986, an estimated 11000 children, some as young as nine years old, were detained without trial, mistreated, and tortured in South African dungeons.
Israel’s attempt to kill Palestinian hope
Zionist ideologues and politicians have always known that a strategy of elimination was necessary in order to create the state of Israel on Palestinian land.
Before and shortly after the Nakba in 1948, 75-80 percent of the Palestinian population that lived on the land, on which Israel was established, were expelled, while hundreds of villages and communities were erased. Some thought this would be reason enough for Palestinians to surrender their rights and leave. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister and leader of the Labor Party, embraced the theory that time will cure all, and all will be forgotten.
Since the beginning, Israel focused on “eliminating” Palestinian refugees, including their capacity to organize the struggle for their right to return, and on delegitimizing their claims and dispersing them. This effort is ongoing.
Yet, a generation later, Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir had to recognize another fundamental challenge to Israel’s settler colonial plans, when she famously said that “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.”
It is clearly not Palestinians forcing the Israeli regime to kill their children. Yet, while Israel continues its settler colonial project and its apartheid regime, it will have to continue targeting Palestinian children and childhood.
Ze’ev Zabotinsky, the founder of the Zionist revisionist movement, which represents the ideological roots of the current right-wing government, outlined this colonial logic when he wrote in 1923 that “Every native population in the world resists colonists as long as it has the slightest hope of being able to rid itself of the danger of being colonized. That is what the Arabs in Palestine are doing, and what they will persist in doing as long as there remains a solitary spark of hope.”
Palestinian children and youth embody this hope. It is at the core of the struggle for justice.
Strategies of elimination
During the 90s, the period of the Oslo process represented a moment of Israeli hope that Palestinians would accept a 21st-century version of apartheid “voluntarily.” A plethora of normalization projects aimed at creating docile Palestinians were aimed especially at children and youth.
This farce ended with the outbreak of the Second Intifada. Since then, genocidal statements and slogans of political leaders and movements that promote the killing of Palestinian children have become commonplace. Israel’s former ‘Justice’ Minister, Ayelet Shaked, infamously posted on Facebook that Palestinian mothers “should go,” along with “as should “the physical homes in which they raised the snakes.” Otherwise, Shaked said, “more little snakes will be raised there.” Crowds in the streets of Tel Aviv chanted during the 2014 massacre in Gaza, “there is no school tomorrow, there are no children left there [in Gaza].” This rationale is shared by the current Israeli Minister of Heritage, who commented on the recent brutal bombing of Gaza, which killed two families and three children on the first night, that “We are people who will not harm a fly, but if the fly bothers him, the fly must be killed and also his children if he hides behind them.” It shouldn’t be a surprise that Israeli soldiers print and distribute T-shirts with pregnant Palestinians in the crosshairs of a sniper rifle and the subtext “1 shot, 2 kills,” or a Palestinian child in the crosshairs with the subtext,
the smaller—the harder.
While there remains consensus across Israeli society that Palestinians must be “eliminated,” the deep rift that has recently opened within the society is about how to do so.
The more “liberal” wing of Israeli policy, including the advisor to several Israeli governments, academic Arnon Sofer argues that the only way to eliminate the “demographic threat”–that is, Palestinian birth rates and growing population–is through “separation,” meaning the walling-off of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza behind Israel’s apartheid walls. Indeed, the separation wall was the brainchild of Labor leaders such as Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak. Since this kind of “demographic engineering” entails giving up a part of Palestinian land that Israel claims–in order to herd Palestinians inside the closed-off bantustans–it has always been opposed by right-wing Zionists.
The Israeli far-right politicians propose unhinged, brutal force and expulsion. Based on Zabotinsky’s principles, Israel’s Minister of Finance and minister within the Ministry of Defense, Bezalel Smotrich, envisions in his “Decisive Plan” ways to “put an end to the Arab hope to realize national ambitions in the Land of Israel.” This plan necessitates only one population having hope and a future–the rest will face extreme brutality. Moshe Feiglin, former deputy speaker of the Israeli parliament, proposed the expulsion of all Palestinians from Gaza and the bombardment of those who won’t leave.
While Palestinians continue to exist and resist, Israel is increasingly desperate and violent in its strategy of elimination and attacks on Palestinian children.
It is overdue for us to build a clear understanding of this horrific aspect of Israeli policy and build effective international solidarity to end it and hold those responsible to account.
Maren Mantovani is the international relations coordinator of the Stop the Wall Campaign and member of the International Secretariat of the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC).