Gaza children are becoming adults before their time
The photograph of 9-year-old Gazan Mohammad Ayash wearing a self-styled surgical mask out of which an onion shoot is seen protruding has led to him being celebrated as another revolutionary child icon, who, like many others living under occupation, has been fast-tracked to adulthood.
Adopting an improvised strategy his father learned during the intifadas, Mohammad mocked Israel’s excessive force of arms and earned worldwide fame. He and thousands of others participated in a 3-week-long protest to reassert the right for Palestinians to return to their ancestral lands.
“Like when straw catches fire” was how Mohammad’s shared image was introduced several weeks ago during an interview with Al Jazeera Arabic.
“I feel no fear, they fear me,” the child said when asked about Israel’s armed response to the protest along Gaza’s perimeter fence, killing 15 and injuring 1,000 others.
“My goal was to reclaim my land, the land of my ancestors and my family’s memories,” he told Al Jazeera.
The child speaks like a man, though only a child. In the context of occupation, voices such as Mohammad’s blur the barely detectable line that separates adulthood and childhood. His courage dilutes his status as a child but emboldens him to assert the rights denied to him by Israel.
Discursive and symbolic defiance of this calibre becomes an unavoidable response to occupational violence and the oppressive structures Palestinians are locked into from birth. The trauma children learn to live with is as real as its disproportionate costs.
As Lebanese singer Ahmad Kaabour puts it: “Know that the young possess dreams of their own and the capacity to determine their fate.” He rose to fame singing Palestinian poet Tawfiq Ziad’s “Unadikum” (“I Call on You”) in the midst of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war.
Mohammad has been elevated as another one of Palestine’s internationally acclaimed child icons. Others include the blindfolded boy, the handcuffed girl, the strangled boy in a headlock and the boy with the punctured skull, among plenty more.
They are the successors of Palestine’s revolutionary present; projecting their voices, exhibiting humour and political consciousness that far exceeds their tender ages.
The occupation becomes in itself a child-rearing practice but one that denies child activists healthy careers and future, regardless of the passions it inflames. As statistics suggest, Palestinian activists as minors and adults will be interned. Death for adults is more inevitable, at least a possibility once children cross the finishing line. Is that the fate that awaits Mohammad and others as they approach childhood’s finish line?
Six years ago, I encountered Ahed Tamimi and her cousin Janna Jihad while organising a photography exhibition at my university. In one of the exhibited photographs, Ahed and another girl have their backs turned to a camera as they stare at the barrel of an Israeli rifle. It is pointed at them by a uniformed Israeli soldier and a tank is in the near distance.
Seven years later, Tamimi is in jail and Jihad has continued her duty-bound mission to document Israeli injustices. Mohammad Tamimi, Ahed’s 15-year-old cousin, had his skull shattered after a rubber-coated metal bullet was fired at his head. The family and Israeli authorities remain embroiled in a battle to control the narrative of what happened to Mohammad.
Figures published by B’Tselem, a Jerusalem-based human rights information centre, put the number of Palestinian minors held in Israeli jails at 356. These numbers are difficult to push aside when imagining what the future promises Gaza’s children. As is the memory of Ibrahim Abu Thurayyah’s death, a double amputee shot by Israeli forces during demonstrations near Gaza’s perimeter fence to protest the United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Lionhearted children such as Mohammad Ayash, the Tamimis, Fawzi Junaid, the 16-year-old swarmed by 20 Israeli soldiers in Hebron, and more, lay bare hard-to-swallow, long-censored truths about Israel’s criminal treatment of minors. Our Twitter-guided social media age is reversing that, post by post.
The imagined threat these children pose as far as Israel is concerned lies in the fact that they constitute half of the Palestinian territories’ overall population. Their lawful objection to the usurpation of their lands by an occupant force over the last 60 years collapses the gap between child and adult.
As a strong mass that represents a legislative threat capable of piercing the rhetorical veil behind which Israel shrugs off the weight of its problems, these children are subject to the treatment adults face. They stand before military courts and languish in jails indefinitely.
At a time when public opinion is being made and unmade across global forums, institutionalised violence to which children remain, victims, is harder to quash.
What cannot be scrubbed away in the broader debate is the visibility and alleviated status children are gaining inside the adult world they wittingly navigate.