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“You’re what this war is all about”—or not

According to B’Tselem, some 2,171 Palestinian children have been killed in the last two decades by Israeli military actions

Middle EastHuman Rights

A boy looking at an Israeli soldier in front of the West Bank barrier. Photo by Justin McIntosh/Wikimedia Commons.

While reading Focus. Click. Wind., a new Canadian novel by writer and theatre director Amanda West Lewis about Vietnam War resisters in Toronto in the 1960s, I came across the name Paul Schutzer.

Some may recall that Schutzer was an American photographer for Life magazine. He died in a tank at age 36 in 1967, during the Six Day War while covering the conflict for the magazine. Looking back through his photos of the early days of the US war on Vietnam in the mid-sixties, I found a dozen photos, often by award-winning photographers, that purported to show the humanity and kindness some US soldiers showed to children in Vietnam.

Interspersed with photos of US troops running with guns and bayonets, and their wanton destruction of the lush jungles, setting fire to homes and villages, we see something else that some US soldiers did or wanted photographers to see them doing.

In some photos, we see US soldiers carrying and cradling young Vietnamese children. We see a soldier taking a child to medics to be patched up. Photos show terrified children, running from houses burned down by the American troops, their parents killed or missing—some soldiers who presumably had just committed unspeakable horrors yet were attempting to console the children. This was a human response to tragedy, albeit a tragedy inflicted on the Vietnamese people by American imperialism.

In the 1968 American pro-war film, The Green Berets, John Wayne meets the young war-orphan, Ham Chuck, whose family has been killed by American soldiers. Photo courtesy Warner Bros.

In 1968, a Hollywood studio (under the approving eye of the US military and President Lyndon B. Johnson) produced a pro-Vietnam War movie, The Green Berets. A box office success, the film earned a substantial $32 million ($278 million in today’s money). John Wayne, the film’s director and star, was a rabid anti-communist and backer of the war. But in the US, there was mounting opposition to the war. Wayne and company wanted to reverse it and boost America’s commitment to the war effort. The plot of the movie includes a Sergeant Peterson who takes a fatherly interest in a young Vietnamese orphan, Ham Chuck, and his dog Jamoke. Of course Ham Chuck’s parents had been killed by American forces. Peterson ultimately dies a hero’s death, and Ham Chuck—fostered by Peterson—is left once again without a father. A grief stricken Ham Chuck is assured by one soldier, “You’re what this war is all about.”

Consider this in light of today’s conflict between Israel and Palestine. Although not an officially declared war, it is, in practice, a war of dispossession: the Israelis are taking land from the Palestinian people. Since 1948, successive Israeli governments have authorized their troops, and the 700,000 plus settlers to confiscate Palestinian homes, destroy the buildings at will and evict Palestinians from their land. Israel, one of the world’s last colonial settler states, has illegally colonized East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza since 1967—despite more than 150 resolutions by the United Nations aimed at curbing Israeli aggression against the Palestinians.

However, it is rare to see a photo in the last 20 years in which an Israeli soldier is seen comforting even one Palestinian child. In fact, Israelis are seldom (if ever) blamed for killing Palestinian children, even those who are disabled and cannot or do not follow soldiers’ orders to stop, to turn around or to get on their knees in preparation for arrest. Consider the case of 32-year-old Eyad al-Hallaq, a profoundly autistic man with a mental age of eight. In 2020, he was walking from his mother’s home in East Jerusalem to his school for the disabled. Four armed Israeli policemen, allegedly looking for an “armed terrorist,” followed al-Hallaq and his teacher into an alley—the two were not armed. The student tried to hide in a garbage room in the school’s basement while the teacher kept yelling at the police to back away, “Nakheh, nakheh [‘disabled’ in Hebrew].” But a policeman fired three shots into the tiny garbage room, killing al-Hallaq. Three years later, in 2023, the cop was acquitted, as he was found to have been “acting in good faith.”

In November 2022, 15-year-old Fulla Masalmeh was a passenger in the car of a 26-year-old man in her West Bank village of Beitunia, 14 kilometres north of Jerusalem. Israeli soldiers opened fire on the car, despite the fact that three independent witnesses said the driver did nothing wrong. Fulla, a vulnerable girl one day short of her 16th birthday, was autistic and, according to her sister, “did not know day from night”. She had accepted a ride from a neighbour. She was killed when soldiers fired two bullets into the car after it had come to a stop.

It’s not just the cold-blooded murders, it’s also the fact that between 500 and 1,000 Palestinian children are locked up every year in Israeli prisons. New research from Save the Children notes that, “The main alleged crime for these detentions is stone-throwing, which can carry a 20-year sentence in prison for Palestinian children.” In the report, 86 percent of 228 former detainees were beaten, 69 percent were strip-searched and 42 percent were shot, had bones broken or other injuries at the point of their arrests. From 2000 to 2021, Israel arrested more than 12,000 Palestinian minors, aged 10-18.

This is not new. For decades Israel’s policies and practices have sought to erase the presence and the lives of Palestinian children (and adults). As Israeli journalist Or Kashti writes in Haaretz, the government continues “to plaster over any crack in the dehumanization of the Palestinians, from the first grade to the grave.”

This is borne out by the most recent action taken in August by Israel’s Ministry of Education. The government has banned a grassroots organization of bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families working for peace from speaking at any schools in the country. The Israeli Palestinian Bereaved Families for Reconciliation and Peace, which was founded in 1995 by Yitzhak Frankenthal, is widely recognized for bringing students and bereaved family members together to talk about their pain and grief, and contribute to reconciliation. Nine months ago, the Israeli government started to require any NGOs or speakers in the schools to issue assurances that their content contains no “degradation or humiliation of the Israel Defense Forces, fallen soldiers, or victims of hostilities.” Clearly the wording was aimed at forbidding anyone critical of the occupation, including bereaved families, from speaking to, and influencing, young people.

Groups such as this one are trying to humanize the Palestinians, and support the fundamental right of Palestinians to a life free from persecution.

Perhaps this is why we see no photos of Israeli soldiers caring for Palestinian children, injured, frightened or dying on the streets of East Jerusalem, West Bank towns and Gaza, which are the battlefields.

Judy Haiven is a member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada. She is a retired professor of management at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. A member of the editorial board of Canadian Dimension, this article is her own opinion.

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