A few weeks ago, as we were reporting on another incident of soldiers firing tear gas on a school, we received a phone call telling us that there were once again soldiers outside As’sawiyya Mixed Secondary School, near Nablus in the West Bank. Hastening down there, we found four soldiers sitting under a tree outside the school in clear view of the children, disrupting their lessons.We asked why they were sitting there. Their response was they were watching to see if the children threw stones on the way home from school. It was 10am, the children go home at 12.30. We asked if they would move out of sight of the children, where they could watch the road without disrupting the lessons. They were not interested.
One of our group said to them, “You couldn’t do this outside a school in Tel Aviv”.
“I can do whatever I want,” came the reply.
Let me repeat that for you: a soldier, armed with an assault rifle, sitting outside of a school full of frightened children, telling us he can do whatever he wants.
Then remember that this soldier is no more than 19-years-old.
And that he is not necessarily wrong.
Israel has had near-universal conscription since the 1950s – boys serve for three years and girls for two before they go to university (from 18-21). The society is heavily militarized, for example subjects chosen at school are often taken on the basis of what area of the army you want to go into (eg intelligence, combat, medical etc). And the area of the army you go into often impacts on your future career. Society highly celebrates those who go into combat units as the elite protectors – the ‘knights in shining armour’ who serve so that people in Israel can go about their daily lives in safety.
And for many in the army, I am sure this is the truth. They are proud to wear the uniform, to represent their country.
As one Israeli friend put it to me, “The army can be an opportunity to turn a page, start anew, and many who need this fresh start flourish in the army … I could walk tall and imagine myself a ‘knight in shining armour’, and I was really thinking in terms of how my actions reflected on the uniform I wore.”
Yet it is not just these people who go into the army. As my friend said, you also have the child “who’s been bullied his entire life, and now suddenly he [finds] himself strong. An insecure kid, thinking ‘now I’m strong enough to pay them back’. And he [has] a gun”.
A gun, and a culture of impunity.
In the West Bank, violence against Palestinians rarely gets punished. Defence for Children International reports that 1,401 children have been killed by soldiers or settlers in the West Bank and Gaza since 2000 with only 16 military cases against soldiers leading to an indictment. Ninety percent of cases of violence by settlers against Palestinians are closed without indictment.
As my Israeli friend puts it:
“We end up with having day-to-day interactions with the Palestinians carried out by young soldiers who might not be the best people for the job […] and it is those soldiers who shape the way the Palestinians see us. Not to mention that [when] a child grows in fear, he’ll be less inclined to make peace.”Now, at As’sawiyya nothing happened, the children went home (not exactly quietly, but no stones were thrown), the soldiers watched them, and went on their way.
But I can’t help but think that if generations of children, both Israeli and Palestinian, only interact at opposite ends of a gun barrel, it’s only going to make peace harder to accomplish.