The causes and intensity of the violence in Israel-Palestine cannot be explained in a headline. But that is exactly what the New York Times tried to do in its front-page story last week entitled, “Leaderless Palestinian Youth, Inspired by Social Media, Drive Rise in Violence in Israel.” Apart from giving the weird impression that Facebook and Twitter has somehow prompted knife attacks (something akin to the claim rap music causes drive-by shootings), the headline obfuscates the fact that the violence is not in Israel, but rather on either disputed land or in the Occupied Territories. That’s the key wrong turn after which the story just gets worse and worse. It’s an unabashedly one-sided story where the victims of violence are only Jewish and the perpetrators of violence are only Palestinians, when in fact most the victims of the current violence have been Palestinians, including at least two dozen unarmed protesters shot dead by Israeli soldiers, and a pregnant woman and her young daughter killed by an Israeli airstrike in Gaza. More than 1,800 Palestinians have been injured by Israeli soldiers using live ammunition and rubber-tipped steel bullets. And of course there is no mention of what Amnesty International has called extrajudicial executions of Palestinian youth.
So this is a moment to indeed learn more, and to do this we need to widen our scope beyond mainstream U.S. news.
If not placing the blame on social media and Palestinian youth, defenders of Israel’s policies argue that the cause of the violence goes far back in history, to an inbred, and therefore ahistorical hatred toward Jews. Such an argument also says therefore that the Occupation is not to blame. Maybe not, but how then to ignore the fact that the very worst of the violence we have seen through the years has been in the West Bank and Gaza, and that it is occurring now? Make no mistake—the killings we see going on in Israel-Palestine are horrible, on both sides, both in and of themselves and for what they indicate about the future. And it does no good to grasp at easy answers that ignore critical facts, such as the nature and history of the Occupation.
British Prime Minister David Cameron had it right when he called Gaza a “giant open prison.” What we have then is a crucible of inequality, denial of human rights, and deprivation of basic human needs that has persisted for generations. A few years ago, the Israeli news source Ha’aretz broke the shocking story that the Israeli government drafted a policy to ration 2,279 calories a day to the inhabitants of Gaza to assure they did not die, but to keep them at a bare level of sustenance and nothing more. As Ha’aretz reports: “The document calculates the minimum number of calories necessary … to keep Gaza residents from malnutrition at a time when Israel was tightening its restrictions on the movement of people and goods in and out of the Strip, including food products and raw materials.”
This political calculation of the maximum amount of misery able to be imposed on a blockaded population can be seen against the backdrop of massive military actions that violate international human rights conventions against collective punishment and for proportionality.
The Occupation (and policies within Israel itself regarding non-Jews) has produced precisely this generation of Palestinian youth who have reached a breaking point. Not because of some inherent hatred of Jews but because of decades of repression and strangulation which comprise their personal life histories. As Dr. Jess Ghannam, clinical professor of psychiatry and global health sciences at the University of California at San Francisco School of Medicine notes:
Palestinian children in Gaza are exposed to more violence in their lifetime than any other people, any other children, anywhere in the world. If you look at children right now who are 10 years old, they’ve been through Cast Lead in 2008 and 2009, the invasion in 2012 and now the invasion and destruction in 2014, in addition to the siege. If you look at the statistics, for example, even before Cast Lead, 80 percent of Palestinian children in Gaza have witnessed some sort of violence against them, a friend or a family member. And now you’re getting to the point where probably close to 99 percent of children in Gaza are being exposed to a level of violence where they have seen family members be killed, murdered, burned alive. There’s nothing like the levels of traumatic exposure that any child in the world has ever been exposed to on a chronic and daily basis.
One article coming from Israel asserts that Palestinian children in East Jerusalem “no longer distinguish between life and death.” Why? Here is the author’s argument:
As a rule, Palestinian children don’t really interest the Israeli public. They don’t interest Israelis when the authorities fail to provide them with thousands of classrooms. They aren’t of interest when security forces detain them long before they’ve reached the age of criminal culpability. They aren’t of any interest when police spray their schools with putrid “skunk” water as an act of unabashed collective punishment. And they’re not of any interest when they are shot and killed by police. They are of interest only when they have a knife in their hand and try and kill somebody.
The article then goes on to interview the head of the Parents Council there. Here is their response to the question, “have you noticed the radicalization of youth?”:
Absolutely. I can tell you that they no longer listen to anybody. And to tell you the truth, this is the reason I quit. They have no more respect for anyone: not for their teacher, their father, no one. And this radicalization can be found on both sides. Look at the settlers: at first the government supported them, but today the new generation has been radicalized at its core, and even the government itself cannot control them. Extremism on both sides. But East Jerusalem is even more dire, because the settler knows he has a father, that he has a government that is protecting him. Who protects the Arab child? The father? The poor father can’t even protect himself. So they have lost all hope in adults, in life, and in peace.
To frame this explosion of violence solely on the controversy surrounding the Al-Aqsa mosque, neglecting this much larger question, is to miss an essential point. It’s not just about religion. It’s also about a longstanding process of colonization, and the deprivation of culture, justice, and rights. As one young Palestinian put it, “I don't look at al-Aqsa as just a religious symbol… It's a cultural symbol. It's a symbol of our heritage and our Palestinian identity. It's a symbol of our social life.”
The same article in which this quote appears notes a growing informal coalition that includes both young people and older Palestinians, men and women alike, spanning generations and economic class. This is much more than a matter of simply young people rising up—it is a matter of an entire oppressed people doing so against the loss of rights and lives, and, precisely, a just social life.
Politicians in the U.S. are beginning to show signs of understanding the situation in this broader context. In a letter to Ambassador Anne Woods Patterson and Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski, Representative Betty McCollum (D-Minn) has asked the State Department to investigate at least one of the killings of a Palestinian youth, noting “Israel’s treatment of Palestinian youth in the Occupied West Bank is unacceptable and must not be tolerated by the US or the international community.” Indeed, precisely such external pressure is absolutely necessary to stem a cycle of violence that is spiraling further and further out of control.