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I Watched a Soldier Shoot at Children - A passing drama in the daily life of Palestinians under occupation
14 February 2002
Perhaps I have lived a charmed life but I know I have been very lucky to have rarely felt myself to be in real physical danger in my 34 years. I can probably remember all of the times I have. In early February I added to their number as I was standing in a crowd at Qalandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah in the West Bank. It was about 1.45pm and the crowd waiting to pass through the checkpoint was moving slowly. Cars were backed up for a mile, traders were calling out the knock-down prices of the clothes and trinkets they were selling and my throat, accustomed to central London fumes but not to the dust of the Holy Land, was dry.
I was with a small group of women priests, supported by Christian Aid, visiting different places and people on both sides of the conflict in Israel/Palestine. To my English eyes, the very sight of soldiers with machine guns on either side of us was unnerving; then we spotted five boys, probably about 13 years old, throwing occasional stones at the Israeli soldiers ahead of us. We stood and watched from our position in the crowd, secretly admiring their nerve if not their accuracy. One of the soldiers had clearly had enough and aimed his gun at them. He can't shoot, we thought; they're unarmed and they're only boys.
But he did. He took aim and fired directly at them. They scattered, and for a moment we thought one of them had been hit. Not content with this result, the soldier climbed up on to one of the concrete posts, clearly visible against the sky, and took slow aim and fired again, and again.
We took pictures, surreptitiously and with real trepidation before getting into our taxis and inching our way through the crowded checkpoint and then the streets of Ramallah. Almost more shocking than witnessing such a violation of human rights was the reaction of the crowd.
Palestinians were trying to get on with their daily journeys that Saturday as any other working day. Movements are severely restricted by the Israeli border closure policy and so a simple journey to work, to school, to hospital, to visit family and friends turns into a long and humiliating wait at one or more of the around 130 checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The crowd at that checkpoint were resigned; nervous, but un- responsive to the violence taking place just meters from them. It was, to my foreign eyes, a sign of the "everydayness" of it all; another checkpoint, another shooting.
British headlines are full of suicide bombs, raids on Jewish settlements, inter-Palestinian violence. My experience of the past few weeks, which has included listening to Israeli F16 bombers flying low over Gaza City for two consecutive nights, is that the real drama is being played out in the grim day to day existence of Palestinians who can't travel, whose children wet the bed at night as soon as they hear the planes.
One Palestinian social worker told us how children were asked at a school in Bethlehem to draw pictures of the olive harvest. The pictures came back of olive trees all right and even of people picking olives, but above their heads flew a helicopter gunship, or by their side lay the dead body of a relative. Red blood contrasted with the black and green of the olives in the distressed minds of children.
We heard stories from Palestinian refugees echoed by Jewish settlers; the same sense of history, of grievance, of soul-destroying fear. But the difference was that we heard these words from Palestinians in their bare rooms with no heating and little food. With unemployment running at 70% in the occupied territories, the birth rate is soaring and the economic situation is dire. From a Jewish settlement, we heard the same fear and well-founded sense of physical vulnerability; settlements of large houses are often built on a hill close to a Palestinian village and children go to school in bullet-proof buses; a guard stands outside the classroom.
There are traumatized children on both sides and it is invidious to try to quantify the suffering. There is no helpful measure of fear. But fear and suffering there is and it will take all of the costly dignity we encountered among ordinary Palestinians to withstand such trauma. It will take all of the goodwill we encountered among some ordinary Israelis towards Palestinians to encourage their government to rein in their well-trained and brutalized army that regularly shoots at children. It will also take the political will of the British and other European governments to speak bravely in defense of the human rights of all sides in the Middle East; but particularly now, to call for the end of the occupation and violation of the Palestinian people.
Reverend Lucy Winkett