Why did they do that?

By EA Katherine, Southern West Bank.

“Why did the soldiers do that?” we ask. Nayef, our translator, gives us a look that questions how there might be something that justifies Israeli soldiers firing teargas on Palestinian school children. However, we are not selective in how we apply international law.  The soldiers often allege that their actions are in response to stones being thrown.  EAPPI condemns all violent actions.  We are trained to look in all directions and ask questions of all involved, especially on the controversial subject of stone throwing.

Some boys come running down the street in Bethlehem’s Aida refugee camp laughing and shouting.  At first glance it looks like they are playing chase.  A couple of taller figures move quickly in the distance.  They fire shots, confirming their identity as Israeli soldiers.  One of the older boys picks up a stone, puts it in a sling and with an expert jerk of his arm sends it hurtling towards them.  This is no playful game.  Half an hour later the smoke of teargas rises from that spot.

Around the corner is a new looking Astroturf football pitch. We ask why the boys don’t use it and are pointed to the spent teargas canisters resting in the overhead netting and the sniper’s gun trained on the pitch.  We are told that if the boys play football there then teargas is fired.

Bethlehem Aida Camp Tear Gas Canisters in the netting above the football pitch EAPPI I Neiva

Tear gas canisters in the netting above the football pitch in Bethlehem’s Aida refugee camp [Photo: EAPPI/I.Neiva]

Our taxi comes around the corner and we hear a thud and scraping of metal on the road behind. A teargas canister rolls along the tarmac, a plume of gas rising from it. The car behind us speeds up and swerves around the obstacles in the road.  Two boys of around 17 stand on the pavement holding slings and stones and watching their target.  The normally busy street is deserted.

Looking at the tear gas out of the back window of our car [Photo: EAPPI/P.Ludwig]

Looking at the tear gas out of the back window of our car [Photo: EAPPI/P.Ludwig]

We look at where the boys are looking and see their target is the 12m high concrete Israeli Separation Barrier, which cuts through the centre of Bethlehem in occupied Palestine, dividing it from occupied East Jerusalem.

School has finished and the children wait for a gap in the traffic, run across the road and come towards us shouting “good morning”, “what’s your name?” and even “bonjour”.  An Israeli soldier approaches a teacher saying that if there is trouble again tomorrow morning he will be forced to use this, pointing at his automatic weapon, and he doesn’t want to have to do that.  He says he is there to protect the road by the school from children throwing stones at the cars.  We saw no stones being thrown.  International law says the Occupying Power should be protecting children and schools.[1]

As this scenario repeats itself across the villages we visit we ask more questions. One head teacher tells us that getting a good education is the best form of resistance to a military occupation which has lasted nearly 50 years.  Students no longer crowd around the window when soldiers are outside, but quietly turn to their books.  Some come to school at the weekend to work on a project documenting their harassment by the military.  In another village we are told that stones are thrown by residents of illegal Israeli settlements at Palestinian cars but the soldiers do nothing to stop it.[2]

EAs providing a protective presence to school children in Tuqu' [Photo: EAPPI/I.Neiva]

EAs providing a protective presence to school children in Tuqu’ [Photo: EAPPI/I.Neiva]

On 26 January 2016 the Secretary-General of the UN said:

“[Israeli] security measures alone will not stop the violence. They cannot address the profound sense of alienation and despair driving some Palestinians – especially young people.  The full force of the law must be brought to bear on all those committing crimes – with a system of justice applied equally for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

“Palestinian frustration is growing under the weight of a half century of occupation and the paralysis of the peace process. Some have taken me to task for pointing out this indisputable truth. Yet, as oppressed peoples have demonstrated throughout the ages, it is human nature to react to occupation, which often serves as a potent incubator of hate and extremism.”

Prosecutions for stone throwing are just one of the areas where justice is not applied equally in occupied Palestine. Palestinians living here come under Israeli military jurisdiction and the criminal age of responsibility is 12.  Possessing a stone can be sufficient to secure a prosecution and the testimony of one soldier is sufficient evidence.  Yet Israelis, who are living illegally in occupied Palestine, come under Israeli civil law.  The criminal age of responsibility is 16 and they are tried in civilian courts.  An average of 220 Palestinian children were held in detention each month in 2015, the majority accused of stone throwing. Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem has documented how in contrast the Israeli government has failed to prevent Israelis living in occupied Palestine from attacking Palestinians, their property and their land.

The UN Secretary-General added, “So-called facts on the ground in the occupied West Bank are steadily chipping away the viability of a Palestinian state and the ability of Palestinian people to live in dignity.”

Our quest for impartiality should not lead us to thinking it is too difficult to act to challenge injustice. Guided by international law, impartiality becomes principled and should lead to action.

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[1] Convention on the Rights of the Child Articles 3 and 38.4 and Article 50 of the Fourth Geneva Convention

[2]  Settlements are illegal under article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention