Iman al-Hams was a 13-year old refugee schoolgirl who was executed—after being wounded—by an Israeli platoon commander on the sad sands of Rafah.
According to testimonies given by soldiers in the same company to the mass Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, a soldier in the watchtower identified Iman and cautioned his commander shouting, “Don’t shoot. It’s a little girl.” The company commander, the soldiers testified, “approached her, shot two bullets into her [head], walked back towards the force, turned back to her, switched his weapon to automatic and emptied his entire magazine into her.”1
Eyewitnesses corroborated the soldiers’ account, saying that Iman was shot almost 70 meters away from the Israeli military position. After a bullet hit her leg, Iman, who was wearing her school uniform, fell. Then, they said, the officer went over to her, saw that she was bleeding from her wounds, but still shot her twice in the head to “confirm the killing,” an Israeli euphemism for the practice of executing a wounded Palestinian. A cursory army investigation later cleared him of any “unethical” conduct, as is customary, and suspended him only because of “poor relations with subordinates.”2
In a flash, Israel proved to the world—yet again—that it is not only intransigent in its patent and consistent violation of international law, but also incapable of adhering to the most fundamental principles of moral behavior.
Three other children, almost the same age as Iman, were killed while sitting in their classrooms in UN-run schools in Gaza in the past few weeks. They were not caught in crossfire. They were not mistaken for adults. They were shot to death as part of Israel’s overt plan to collectively punish Palestinian civilians for acts of resistance committed from their localities, in order to incite internal rifts and resentment aimed at the resistance movements. For instance, during the recent atrocious attack on Jabaliya, ostensibly to prevent firing of the rudimentary Qassam rockets, the Israeli forces destroyed houses, groves, infrastructure, water and electric supply lines in a manner that was called “wanton” and “indiscriminate” by the UN. Lest people fail to get the message, leaflets were dropped over northern Gaza by Israeli helicopters, warning Palestinians that “terrorism pushes you further into a life of misery and poverty.”3 And your children will be hunted, too, the leaflets forgot to mention.
But why, someone may protest, should we judge Israel based on this one incident, as heinous as it may be? A brief look at Israel’s recent record of purposely targeting Palestinian children will provide a compelling response. The fact that more than six hundred and twenty Palestinian children have been killed by Israel in the past four years should show that rather than being a mere aberration, murdering Iman was the rule.
A look at the use of language, perhaps the most accurate gauge of a society’s moral collapse, will reveal the degree of racism that has gripped Israel. Media outlets, politicians and even academics have seen fit to brand Palestinian children as “enemies,” “beasts,” “tormenting attackers” and “terrorists” throughout this intifada. The main motive behind resorting to such dehumanizing diction in reference to children is a prevalent belief in the Israeli mainstream that Palestinians are more than anything else an imminent danger to be dealt with. They are a people born with a predisposition to terror, as if due to some mysterious genetic disorder. A child is then just a potential terrorist, a literal time-bomb. Studies by prominent Israeli demographers often betray this attitude. Even some Israeli army officials are appalled at the intentional killings. Ha’aretz quoted a senior officer saying, “Nobody can convince me we didn’t needlessly kill dozens of children.”4 Hundreds is more like it. Some of the most revealing instances will help substantiate this claim.
Even before the current intifada, in Hebron in 1996, an Israeli settler fatally pistol-whipped 11-year-old Hilmi Shusha. An Israeli judge first acquitted the murderer, saying the child “died on his own as a result of ‘emotional pressure.’ ” After numerous appeals and under pressure from the Supreme Court, which termed the act “light killing,” the judge reconsidered and, as the Aqsa Intifada was raging, sentenced the killer to six months’ community service and a fine of a few thousand dollars. The boy’s father accused the court of issuing a “license to kill.”5 Gideon Levy of Ha’aretz eloquently described the fine as the “end-of-the-season clearance price” on children’s lives, referring to the findings of B’Tselem, Israel’s leading human rights organization, which documented dozens of similar cases in which perpetrators were either acquitted or received a slap on the wrist.6
In the first year of the intifada, several human rights organizations, including the Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights, documented a pattern in which Israeli sharpshooters have targeted the eyes or knees of Palestinian children with a “clear intention to harm.” Tel Aviv University Professor Tanya Reinhart writes, “A common practice is shooting a rubber-coated metal bullet straight in the eye—a little game of well-trained soldiers, which requires maximum precision.”7 Those snipers, evidently, failed to see beyond their little, glittering target the face, the person, the human child, and they “took them out” with “professionalism.” A New York Times journalist, who spent two weeks monitoring the “clashes” between Palestinian children with stones and slingshots and the Israeli army with tanks and precision equipment at a flashpoint in Gaza, wrote, “Never during the time I spent at Karni did an Israeli soldier appear to be in mortal danger. Nor was either an Israeli soldier or settler even injured. In that…period, at least 11 Palestinian [children] were killed during the day [time]” by live ammunition8.
Palestinian children have been fatally targeted in minor stone-throwing incidences by professionally-trained Israeli sharpshooters, who only fire with the intention “to hit the head.” Because if a sharpshooter fires, “he fires for certain in order to kill,” as transpired from the breakthrough interview Ha’aretz journalist Amira Hass9 had conducted with a “left” leaning sharpshooter during the early stages of the current intifada. “Keenness to shoot” , “lack of restraint,” being “bored” or even “tired” were among the key excuses he gave to justify his army’s shoot-to-kill policy. Citing the high incidence of killing or seriously injuring Palestinian children, Hass asked the sharpshooter whether he or his colleagues had intentionally targeted children. Adamantly denying the accusation, he emphasized: “You don’t shoot a child who is 12 or younger. … Twelve and up is allowed. He’s not a child any more … . Twelve and up, you’re allowed to shoot. That’s what [our commanders] tell us.”
The veteran American journalist Chris Hedges went even further, documenting how Israeli troops systematically cursed and otherwise provoked Palestinian children playing in the dunes of southern Gaza in order to shoot them. He wrote in Harper’s Magazine:
“The boys—most no more than ten or eleven years old—dart in small packs up the sloping dunes to the electric fence that separates the camp from the Jewish settlement. They lob rocks toward two armored jeeps parked on top of the dune and mounted with loudspeakers. … A percussion grenade explodes. The boys … scatter, running clumsily across the heavy sand. They descend out of sight behind a sandbank in front of me. There are no sounds of gunfire. The soldiers shoot with silencers. The bullets from the M-16 rifles tumble end over end through the children’s slight bodies. Later, in the hospital, I will see the destruction: the stomachs ripped out, the gaping holes in limbs and torsos.
“Yesterday at this spot the Israelis shot eight ..., six of whom were under the age of eighteen. One was twelve.… Children have been shot in other conflicts I have covered—death squads gunned them down in El Salvador and Guatemala, mothers with infants were lined up and massacred in Algeria, and Serb snipers put children in their sights and watched them crumple onto the pavement in Sarajevo—but I have never before watched soldiers entice children like mice into a trap and murder them for sport.”10
Other than the direct approach to killing Palestinian children, Gideon Levy also reports on another form of slow death: the medieval-like siege. When a 10-year-old girl from El-Sawiya village near Nablus experienced severe abdominal pains, her father tried to take her to the nearest hospital in Nablus; the merciless Israeli siege, however, blocked all possible routes out of the village. In the morning Ella died from a burst appendix, which could have been easily treated at any hospital.11
Whether at the checkpoints, in their classrooms, in their living rooms or in the streets, Palestinian children have long lost any immunity they might have enjoyed under an occupation that used to be particularly sensitive to its image in the western public opinion. Alas, that was before 9/11. Since then, however, with the effective Israelization of US foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, Israelis felt they had a “windfall,” as Netanyahu called the 9/11 crimes in his first public reaction. Indeed, Israel has steadily moved close to a combination of the French colonial model in Algeria and the apartheid model in South Africa, while enjoying unwavering protection from the new empire and a hypocritical, subservient attitude from most European governments which continue to treat Israel as a preferred partner and as a western outpost in the near east. Thanks to this shameful collusion, Palestinian children are no longer spared Israel’s worst crimes, committed with revolting impunity.
When a nation tolerates, even encourages—through failing to properly investigate killings or punish perpetrators—the deliberate, cold-blooded murder of a defenseless child under the pretence of security, it does not only lose any claim to morality it may have ever had, but also kills any remaining argument for its worthiness to continue existing as a racist, colonial state that is essentially above the law. It is the responsibility of humanity at large, and the west in particular, to impose sanctions and boycotts on Israel similar to those struck against South Africa in the past in order to bring about its compliance with the precepts of international law and the ever-evolving universal moral principles.
Iman in Arabic means belief. It is hard to guess why Iman al-Hams’ parents called her that name, but it may have been out of belief in their own ability to persevere, to live and develop despite occupation, exile and destitution. This belief lies buried with Iman in Rafah. With occupation, there is no room for true peace, for progress, for decent living or for any sense of safety. Palestinian children deserve life, freedom, dignity and hope. At the very least, they deserve not to be executed by the region’s “only democracy.”