Anne Paq’s photos of the human consequences of Israel’s latest assault on Palestinian people in Gaza jolt our seemingly increasing complacency for the civilian “collateral damage” of conflicts — overwhelmingly women, children and the aged. An estimated 190 Palestinian children have been killed and close to 2000 families have lost their homes to date (in less than three weeks) due to Israeli strikes that are purported to be targeting “militants”.
Paq’s photos reminded me of my scheduled five-day work program in Gaza in early January 2009, cancelled due to Israel’s brutal 23 day devastation of Gaza (Operation Cast Lead), including so many children burnt through to their bones by Israel’s use of white phosphorus (which, like an increasing number of weapons and their usage, does not discriminate between combatants and children). Instead, I was asked to travel to Jordan to meet with United Nations regional office staff. On the day I travelled from East Jerusalem through the West Bank and on to Amman I carried, among other papers, a copy of the day’s local Arabic-language newspaper. Upon arrival in my hotel, international news was broadcasting a lengthy report of an Israeli man badly shaken by a rocket from Gaza landing near his house. The impact had toppled a mug onto his floor and it had shattered — the only physical damage sustained — and the report included a long close-up of the broken cup. In contrast, the newspaper I carried had, on its front page, a photo from Gaza of demolished buildings, with the severed head of a young girl on the ground, decapitated by Israeli strikes. It received no global coverage. I don’t think the cup rather than the girl was being broadcast globally because of sensitivity to the use of shocking imagery that Helen Razer sensibly canvassed yesterday.
I included in my report to the UN at that time collated data on the effects of the larger Israeli/Palestinian situation on children. The annual data for the preceding four years reflected the regular international reporting of Israeli casualties, with a total of 11 Israeli children killed. Rarely reported were the deaths over the same period of any of the corresponding 334 Palestinian children. (For what it’s worth, the numbers injured in that period totalled 26 Israeli children and 1461 Palestinian children.) These are UN data that, maybe unsurprisingly, are not accepted by the Israeli authorities, and the figures did not include deaths from Israel’s air, sea and ground assault, which commenced December 27, 2008. That onslaught resulted in some 1400 Gazan and 13 Israeli deaths; the former including an estimated 300 children. These Palestinian data are Amnesty International estimates (also not accepted by Israel) and the Israeli deaths are Israeli government data, and included three civilians and four Israeli soldiers killed by their own side (“friendly” fire).
That the lives and security of some children are considered less important than others is of no surprise to anyone. When I was working with the UN last year in Yemen, it was typically evident that boys were primarily the vulnerable children in the many conflicts between militia groups and government troops. But when I managed to locate and verify the general validity of data on the deaths of children due to US drone strikes (which the US administration refuses to release), a different picture emerged: the single largest group of children being killed were girls under five (the drones often target homes). This does not seem to have been reported anywhere.
Death is but the most extreme consequence for children of being subjected to conflicts, which includes such appalling and alarmingly widespread practices as forced recruitment as child soldiers, the use of rape and sexual assault of girls (and, of course, women and, to a lesser extent, boys) by militia, the post-conflict risks to children of landmines, and girls being abducted as sex slaves to armed groups. It can mean health workers unable to access children for life-saving immunisation campaigns and schools being taken over by militia groups. All these have lifelong consequences for the affected children, and are commonly absent from our awareness.
Occasionally, however, the impact of conflicts on children captures more widespread attention and outrage. In recent months, this has been especially the case with the April 2014 kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram (which I wrote about yesterday). More than 200 girls remain hostages after 100 days, with the United States and its allies vetoing the Nigerian President’s behind-the-scenes negotiations for a prisoner swap for their release, even as the US was doing just that for the release of a single US soldier. This positions the rights and freedom of those girls within a spectrum of global political protocols of some sort (or another, depending upon whom it concerns). As noted yesterday, when unconditional outrage was qualified by the political reality of not negotiating with terrorists, there was a coincidental or associated decline in that global outrage.
There could be a rational basis upon which the lives of various populations (children, girls as a specific subset, terrorists, Israelis/Palestinians, US marines) could be reduced to some sort of formula for undertaking or at least rationalising such trade-offs. If so, it is evident that children’s lives do not count for much in such a consideration. Infamously but revealingly, for example, is former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright’s judgement in 1996 that the death of 500,000 Iraqi children in the first Gulf War was “a price worth paying” — with the devastating sanctions on Iraqi people and the 2003 invasion to remove Saddam Hussein still to come.
Ask the question again concerning efforts to remove President Bashar al-Assad from Syria, where around 10,000 children had been killed through to the end of 2013. These deaths comprise violations by all sides (no matter how it’s spun in media reports) in a conflict that, from early last month, seems to increasingly demand a choice between the Sunni jihadist ISIS or the current pro-Shia leadership. Who’s your “enemy’s enemy” in making that decision? Western powers apparently opted for Sunni militancy as their de facto “friend” (under the guise of a co-opted “Arab Spring”) — the “enemy” being Shia states led by Iran and with Syria as the proxy battleground — without anticipating the ISIS version. It increasingly appears that maintaining efforts to depose al-Assad is to strengthen ISIS’ hand at the Albright-like cost of many more Syrian children’s lives still to come. And for an outcome presently likely to be even worse than that currently evident in Iraq.
Terrorist groups do not seem to have a monopoly on discounting the lives of children in conflicts, be it Nigeria, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Gaza or, likely, anywhere else (except “ours”, as Guy Rundle cited yesterday). And, as the Chibok kidnapping suggests, the faster we embrace a human rights outrage, the faster we also seem to forget about it. It is shocking but seemingly inevitable that we will continue to witness an increasing discounting of children’s lives in conflicts, including the barbaric forms of victimisation of girls in conflict, even as we hasten to deplore the consequences.