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A Palestinian boy spotlights a West Bank tragedy

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

Tragedy and farce seem to interweave at times in Israeli efforts to maintain law and order in the occupied territories. Last week’s footage of a group of soldiers detaining a five-year-old Palestinian boy, for allegedly throwing stones in the West Bank town of Hebron, highlighted once again the lack of protection of human rights for ordinary Palestinians.

According to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, who recorded the incident, soldiers threatened the child and his parents, handcuffed and blindfolded the father, and handed the boy over to the Palestinian Police. The young boy Wadi Maswadeh emerged as an unlikely hero for Palestinians for resisting occupation at such a young age, and as a villain to many Israelis, who would point to him as evidence of the next generation of Palestinian “terrorists.” Neither of these portrayals do any justice to the tragic reality of the continuing occupation, which violates the human rights of ordinary Palestinians every day of the week. Only a farcical incident in which a group of well-armed soldiers see a very young boy, well under the age of criminal responsibility, as a security threat, bringing back to the public domain the banality of the occupation.

Human rights

International law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights advocate and enshrine the principles of upholding human rights for all people everywhere, at all times and in all circumstances. However, violation of human rights is not only morally deplorable, but it is also politically counter-productive and a folly. One is entitled to be sceptical about the success of the renewed U.S. efforts to resume peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Nevertheless, the daily hardships of the occupation hinder the gathering of much needed popular support for genuine peace with Israel. Some Israelis were mainly concerned that these types of incidents should not happen because they are damaging the country’s image as a democratic society, which respects human rights. Obviously harming the rights of innocent people makes for very bad public relations for Israel.

However, public relations is not the main issue here; it is about the very nature of the Jewish state and whether it deserves to belong to the family of states in which the respect for human rights is an integral part of their political and social DNA.

While the incident with young Wadi came to an end without any further action by the Israeli or Palestinian authority, it was probably lucky for him that a researcher for a human rights organization was on hand to document the incident. Many others are not that lucky, and as The Human Rights Watch World Report affirms, “Israel is engaged in discriminatory practices in the occupied West Bank,” which includes the unlawful demolition of hundreds of Palestinian houses, denying locals access to natural resources, displacing hundreds of people to enable the expansion of settlements, and also targeted assassinations.

Moreover, the Israeli authorities are suppressing freedom of expression by using excessive force against demonstrators, and running a very flawed justice system which lets Israeli settlers to get away with crimes against Palestinians, while subjecting Palestinians who oppose the occupation to “arbitrary detention, coercive interrogations, and unfair trials.”

“A living hell”

It is ironic that last week’s stone throwing incident occurred in the city of Hebron, where a small group of Jewish fundamentalist settlers, consisting of no more than 400 to 500 residents and 200 Yeshiva students, are making the life of the more than 170,000 Arabs who live there, “a living hell.”

We are making the lives of millions unbearable, into prolonged human suffering, [and] it kills me

Yossi Mekelberg

The name of the settlers’ security closures are imposed frequently, disrupting the lives of thousands of Palestinian residents, and according to Peace Now in Israel, systemic violence by settlers is often used against the Arab population in various neighborhoods. The ever present tension in this city, which witnessed tragic sectarian killings on both sides in the past, harbors radicalization which in turn breeds violence.

Israeli officials were quick to point out that more than 150 Israelis were hurt by stone throwing between January and May this year, which of course should not be condoned. Then again, surely the Israeli leadership must appreciate that the political impasse, the economic hardships, and the lack of respect to human dignity, as represented by the occupation, is bound to lead to popular resistance in which violence is one form it takes on, even if regrettably so.

In the bigger picture of the 46 years of Israeli occupation, the incident of detaining Wadi Maswadeh and his father Karam will be soon forgotten. It will be recorded in the annals of Israeli and Palestinian relations as “just” another case of the violation of human rights of a young boy terrified and traumatized by the experience. Yet, this should instead send a clear warning sign to the Israelis that the occupation leads to moral decay and foolish arbitrariness, which instead of enhancing the security of the country, leaves them directionless and increasingly isolated.

Decades ago the controversial Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz warned his fellow country men and women that Israel had to “liberate itself from this curse of dominating another people,” claiming quite prophetically that the longer the occupation continues, the more likely it would “bring about a catastrophe for the Jewish people as a whole.”

Two Intifadas and half a million settlers later, the military repression and deprivation of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians of their human and political rights have not ensured Israeli security. In the memorable Oscar nominated documentary The Gatekeepers, former head of the internal security Carmi Gilon stated that “we are making the lives of millions unbearable, into prolonged human suffering, [and] it kills me,” followed by one of his predecessors Admiral Ami Ayalon observing that “we win every battle but we lose the war.”

Arresting a five-year-old for throwing a stone is losing both the battle and the war. If the Israeli leaders need any evidence as to why peace with the Palestinians is of upmost importance to Israeli interests, they should watch time and again the footage of the unfortunate arrest of Wad Maswadeh. A peaceful end to the occupation is the only way to prevent this week’s tragic farce from ending in a full blown tragedy.

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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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