Children First

Image of pro-Palestine protest.

Image by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona.

During 11 days of fighting between Israel and Hamas at least 67 children under age 18 were killed in Gaza and two in Israel. The story “They Were Only Children” was featured in the New York Times on May 26, 2021. Their pictures were featured on the cover page.

Hamas continues to fail. Their attacks—over and over and over—are used as justification for retaliatory strikes, increased occupation, and most recently evacuation orders. There are now too many dead children to fit their pictures into a cover page.

There is too much failure. I have a PhD in International Conflict Management, but I don’t think it requires sophisticated analysis to see things are not working.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is the most accepted standard for children’s rights. These rights include: the right to health, education, family life, play and recreation, an adequate standard of living and to be protected from abuse and harm.

In 1977 additional protocols were added to the Geneva Convention to protect children in times of conflict, “children shall be the object of special respect and shall be protected against any form of indecent assault. The parties to the conflict shall provide them with the care and aid they require” (Art. 77).

The vulnerability of children is beyond dispute. We say we will provide them extra respect, but is it enough? How many dead children are too many?

Child psychologists treating the survivors will tell you that the suffering is immense. Surviving, for some, means learning to live without an arm, or leg, or the best friend who did not survive. PTSD in children is real and studies show that some children are literally too scared to learn.

Parents have children asking difficult questions, “Can [they] destroy our building in the dark?” What is reassuring? What is the truth? What makes a difference?

Refaat Alareer (@translate123) reports on these experiences of parenting in Gaza. On Oct. 15, 2023, he translated and retweeted: “Today, we entered the stage of ‘children first.’ Fresh water is about to run out, so we made a plan to fairly distribute each person’s share of water, and we gave priority to the Kids. Bread is enough for one day. The adults will have ‘only one meal.’ Children first.”

The promises to protect children are not being met. There is no exception written for “except in cases of ________” because there is no exception, period. Israeli children and Palestinian children equally deserve to be protected from indecent assault and they have an unequivocal right to healthy conditions.

Hamas: your strategy has not, is not, and will not ever work. It has always been counterproductive, and if you persist with violence more children will die.

Israel: your strategy has not, is not, and will not ever work. You are not an official terrorist organization, but you place yourself at the same level with the terrorists you oppose when you victimize innocent civilians and ignore your shared responsibility in protecting the rights of children.

Perhaps everyone would benefit from the reminder that sometimes putting children first requires sacrifice. Sacrifice the ego and political ambition and accept that violent responses do not deliver positive outcomes. The approaches that did not work in 2021 (and so many times before that) still will not work in 2023 and children are paying the price.

Wim Laven has a PhD in International Conflict Management, he teaches courses in political science and conflict resolution, and is on the Executive Boards of the International Peace Research Association and the Peace and Justice Studies Association.