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Kids in march of Return

A man takes photos of the Place Jean Rey in front of the EU Council in Brussels, Belgium, covered by 4 500 empty pairs of shoes to memorialise every person killed in Israel over the past decade. The installation greeted European Foreign Ministers as they entered a meeting to discuss the ongoing Gaza crisis.  Picture: EPA

A man takes photos of the Place Jean Rey in front of the EU Council in Brussels, Belgium, covered by 4 500 empty pairs of shoes to memorialise every person killed in Israel over the past decade. The installation greeted European Foreign Ministers as they entered a meeting to discuss the ongoing Gaza crisis. Picture: EPA

Published May 29, 2018

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IN THE past few months, specifically since March 30 this year, 15 Palestinian children have been killed in the Gaza Strip and about 1000 others injured.

That happened during the Return demonstration marking the 70th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba (“The Catastrophe”), where Palestinians were forcibly displaced from their towns and villages in 1948.

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On May 14, a day before the anniversary of the Nakba, the United States decided to move its embassy to occupied Jerusalem and to celebrate the occasion.

Not far from Jerusalem, tens of thousands of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip marched towards the fence that separates the Gaza Strip from the area within the 48 borders.

They tried to cross the fence and hurled stones and Molotov cocktails at Israeli forces and torched hundreds of tyres there.

The Israeli army and its snipers fired heavy and indiscriminate gunfire at the crowd.

They killed 62 people, including eight children. The youngest child, 8-month-old Laila al-Ghandour, died from the heavy tear gas.

The Palestinian protesters did not pose any real danger to the Israeli soldiers. The majority was standing at a distance from the fence.

It was clear that the hands of the soldiers were very loose on the trigger.

Snipers killed a large number of people and some were killed by random bullets fired at the protesters.

This constitutes a flagrant violation of international law that prohibits the use of lethal force - it is allowed only as a last resort and when there is a direct threat to life, and Israel is obliged to respect the right to peaceful protest.

What was impressive about these protests is the participation of thousands of Palestinian families of different ages, in addition to the thousands of children who had been present since the first day of the events, but more intensely on May 14. They reached the separation fence carrying water, food, baby milk and toys and set up a camp-like structure waiting for their mass return.

They arrived at the wall dreaming of stepping into their ancestors’ land.

Some of the children were convinced that the day of March 14 could have been the real and actual day of return.

We heard their cries as they said they crossed, when some young people managed to get past the fence, where they set foot for the first time in a land they had been denied access to.

We don’t need to look into the details; how the children participated and who sent or instigated them and how they got there. Should they be excluded and prevented from participating in activities that could pose a threat to them?

Discussing that is just a waste of time and detracts from the main focus - the need for the international community to take urgent measures to hold the perpetrators of crimes against children accountable and arrest them.

To avoid blaming the victim, I think the participation of children in the Gaza Strip in rejecting the occupation is a normal reaction caused by years of injustice, deprivation, poverty and siege. It is a product of the wars and attacks on the Gaza Strip and the result of the absence of economic, political, social and existential safety.

Children have always been exposed to danger at home; hundreds of homes were shelled, destroyed, and children killed and displaced as a result. Hundreds of others died owing to lack of proper health care, illness and the inability to leave the besieged Gaza Strip by land, sea or air.

They are “caged in a toxic slum from birth to death and they are systematically deprived of their rights”, says High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad Al Hussein.

I don’t think that children in Gaza have many options. The occupation has not left them much; they have been isolated in a small geographical area, many live with their families below the poverty line. I remember the cries of a father weeping for his son who died. His son died of starvation, and he could not bring him food.

Children in the Gaza Strip did not choose the confrontation; it was imposed on them. Where should they go? Even their sea has become polluted; there is no water or electricity there. For many years, nothing loomed on the horizon that could give them a dose of optimism.

Refugees form the majority of the population in the Gaza Strip - 68% - of a nation of about 2million. Children form about 50% of the total population. Like the other Palestinian children, all of them are aware that their land has been stolen and are convinced that their presence is temporary in the camps.

They believe now that this is their chance to return and that they have to be part of making that happen.

There is no need to incite them; they are already part of the general situation. The Gaza Strip is a highly densely populated and crowded society.

Back to the main point, which is the Israeli occupation that suffocates Gaza and controls who can get in or out; the majority of the children in Gaza Strip have never left Gaza. Some of them have lived through three wars in Gaza so far, and are fully aware that the reason for their suffering is this occupation.

Their participation is simply a quest for a better life, a life better than the one they live in the Gaza Strip. I do not know if the children are well aware of the danger they face and that they may lose their lives in any confrontation. But I know that those who shoot them also know that the children did not, and will not, pose a danger to anyone.

What we saw in the media and on social media was shocking; soldiers having fun aiming and killing unarmed people. They chose to kill children and to aim at them while not being exposed to any danger at all.

The Return marches gave the children a moral boost and a positive energy. I am sure that it filled their long leisure time and changed their daily routine. They have a specific goal now; is there anything more beautiful than a big house with trees and flowers?

We cannot stop children from participating, and I don’t think we have the right to do so. I agree with everyone who says they should not be in areas that endanger their lives, but the question remains: which areas can be safe in the Gaza Strip? There is none.

* Alayasa is a child rights activist in Palestine

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