What picture of the Israeli-Palestinian question do children gain from reading contemporary children’s books? In part 1 of this article, Professor Fouad Moughrabi focused on Lynne Reid Banks’ Broken Bridge . In part 2 he continues the discussion with a consideration of Deborah Ellis’s, Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak and Elizabeth Laird’s A Little Piece of Ground .
Deborah Ellis’s Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak is a collection of interviews with Palestinian and Israeli children. She begins her scrupulously balanced book by expressing a genuine concern for the plight of civilians, especially children, caught in situations of war. She states what UNICEF and others have already amply documented, namely, that ‘in World War I 15% of all casualties were civilians. In World War II, 50% of all casualties were civilians. In 2004, 90% of casualties in war are civilians.’ So far as the casualties of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are concerned, she points out that ‘between 29 September 2000, when the second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, began, and 7 March 2003, 3,399 people were killed. Of these, 429 were children under the age of eighteen.’ She then lists their names.
Ellis provides a framework and a context that enables the reader to situate the interviews with the children. She briefly explains the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and provides the arguments as seen by Israelis and by Palestinians. Both narratives are therefore provided. The reader will also learn what a Jewish settlement is, how some roads are for Jews only and how Palestinians are controlled by a system of roadblocks and checkpoints.
One hears the voices of Palestinian and Israeli children and one is able to enter into a world that is bound by fear, anxiety and sometimes despair. Yet one also sees glimmers of hope and possibilities of a better life.
A book every Arab and Israeli politician should be required to read
What we learn by reading these accounts is at times shocking to the point where I think every Arab and Israeli politician should be required to read the book, if only to finally realize the kind of world they are creating for their children. We learn for instance that there is absolutely no contact between Palestinian and Israeli children. One 15-year-old Israeli youngster, a recent immigrant from Russia, says: ‘I know a little bit about the Palestinians from the news. It seems they all hate us, but I don’t know why. I have not met any yet. It is impossible for us to meet. We are separate people.’ An 11-year-old Palestinian says: ‘I don’t know any Israeli children. I don’t want to know any. They hate me and I hate them.’ Merav, a 13-year-old Israeli who lives in a settlement (which means a place built for Jews on confiscated Arab land in the heart of the occupied West Bank), has this to say: ‘I don’t know any Palestinian children. They are all around the outside of my settlement, but I don’t know any of them. I have no reason to meet them. They are dangerous and will shoot me if they get the chance. The Israeli army keeps them away from us.’
Usually, the only Israelis that Palestinian children see are the soldiers. Here is a 12-year-old Palestinian child speaking: ‘There are a lot of soldiers where I live. They watch us all the time. We can’t do anything without being watched by them. They carry guns, and they give me nightmares. We would like them to go away, but they don’t care about what we want.’
It is interesting to note how heavily socialized Israeli children are: nearly all mention school field trips to Yad Vashem, boy scout activities, one child mentions a visit to Poland ‘to see for ourselves what happened to the Jews during the war’ and army service. It is also interesting to see how propaganda themes and anti-Arab images filter down to children. Here is an example from an 18-year-old who lives in a settlement north of Jerusalem: ‘We, the Israelis, have been trying, but how much can we give? After all, this is our land. I wish all the Jews in the world would come to Israel, and that all the Palestinians would leave and go live in some other Arab country.’
By contrast, Palestinian children do not seem to undergo such a thick process of socialization. They appear to be influenced more by the texts of everyday life, what they see around them. Here is an 18-year-old who lives in a refugee camp near Ramallah: ‘A lot of people die in this camp. The Israelis shoot missiles at us. Not long ago, a missile hit a car and killed a woman and her three children. Two other women were killed by a land mine. Lots of people die here.’ The boy has been in a wheelchair for the past few years, not because of any injury, but because ‘he was frightened by the soldiers a few years ago, he became unable to move his legs and one of his arms. He hasn’t walked since.’ To her credit, Deborah Ellis points out that many Palestinian children have suffered what we call post traumatic stress syndrome, a widespread phenomenon that has received little acknowledgment or attention. Those who live in refugee camps have suffered the most because that is where the Israeli army focused its most intense assaults. The symptoms include listlessness, inability to concentrate, bedwetting, aggressive behaviour, insomnia and nightmares.
Israeli children who have come into contact with Palestinian children tend to see things somewhat differently. Here is a 15-year-old who lives in Jerusalem: ‘I used to take an art class with Palestinian children. I was 11 years old. It was no big deal. They were just kids doing art, same as me. We didn’t fight because they were Palestinian and I am an Israeli. We were just kids doing art.’ This young man notes: ‘I don’t think we’ll ever get out of this situation unless we give the Palestinians their own state. It’s the only way to make peace. Everyone will have to give up a little of what they want in order to get some of what they want. We’re both here. Neither of us is going to go away.’
Some of their wishes are touching indeed. Nearly all wish for the fighting to end. A 14-year-old Palestinian girl says: ‘I wish the fighting would end, so that we can just make music and have fun and not hate each other. Maybe we could even make music with the Israelis one day.’ One 16-year-old Israeli says: ‘My three wishes? I have just one. I want the war to end, so I can keep living in Israel and raise my children here.’
Life in Ramallah
Elizabeth Laird’s novel, A Little Piece of Ground , written with the help of Palestinian writer Sonia Nimr, deals with issues that I am familiar with, having lived in Ramallah during the period (2000-2003) that she chronicles. The book was initially published in 2003 by Macmillan Children’s Books before being published in the US in 2006 by Haymarket Books. For a while, one could not purchase the book through Amazon.com USA because of a nasty campaign launched by pro-Israeli groups. I notice, however, that this has now changed. Recently, the book was selected as a United States Board on Books for Young People – Children’s Book Council (USBBY-CBC) Outstanding International Book for 2007, an honour well deserved by the author as well as Haymarket Books.
The book tells the story of the Aboudi family who live in Ramallah, their 12-year-old son Karim and two of his friends, one of whom, Hopper, comes from a refugee camp near Ramallah and the other, Jodi, from a relatively well-to-do family. Karim daydreams about becoming a soccer star but has to contend with the Israeli imposed curfews and checkpoints that restrict his freedom of movement. He sounds almost exactly like one of the real life teenagers in Deborah Ellis’s book who speaks about the threatening Israeli soldiers whose rules of engagement consider a 12-year-old kid throwing rocks at them a legitimate target for killing. Karim’s father is humiliated in front of him by Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint while the family is travelling by car to spend a couple of days in their ancestral village near Ramallah. The family and their relatives are abused and threatened as they try to harvest their olives, as their ancestors have done for many generations. The threats and abuse come from nearby Jewish settlers who live on confiscated Arab land. For these Jewish settlers, many of whom originate from the US, the land belongs to the Jewish people and the Palestinians who are considered to contaminate it, must therefore go.
Karim and his friend Hopper decide to reclaim a bulldozed lot and turn it into a football field. They also establish a secret den as an after school hideout. This effort to reclaim a little piece of ground eventually brings them face to face with Israeli tanks and a near fatal adventure that takes the reader directly to the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation. Karim is shot in the leg as he runs away from the Israeli soldiers but he survives. At the end of the story, the author says: ‘He’d go back soon, when his leg was better, and he’d start again, he and Hopper, and they’d bring in the other boys, and make the place theirs again, and play soccer, and play, and play.’
The nuances of the place
Elizabeth Laird captures the nuances of the place so well that one forgets that the author is actually a foreigner writing about a Palestinian story. The interaction within the Aboudi family reveals a society where the family plays a crucial role in people’s lives, offering unconditional and loving support to all members. This may well be one of the main sources of strength that has allowed Palestinian society to persist in the face of Israel’s fiercest attacks against it. At one point, Hassan Aboudi, the father, who had suffered humiliation at the hands of the soldiers, sits silently at the family meal and then says: ‘Endurance. That’s what takes courage. Decency among ourselves. That’s where we must be strong. When they steal from us and try to humiliate us, the real shame is on themselves.’
The novel captures the impact of the Israeli invasion on schools and education. Several schools are vandalized by Israeli soldiers and the Palestinian Ministry of Education is ransacked and its computers are smashed causing a major loss of files and data sets. In the story, children are unable to concentrate; they are ‘edgy and restless’; they hear a big explosion outside their school and the frustrated teacher resorts to physical punishment to try to control them.
Laird also captures rather well the feelings of anxiety and loss as Karim’s best friend Jodi tells him that he and his parents have decided to leave the country. In the years 2000-2003 hundreds of middle income families and professionals decided to leave because of their worries about their children’s welfare and safety. A closely knit society was torn asunder as it had been twice before, in June 1967 and in April-May 1948.
A Little Piece of Ground is a metaphor for Palestinians who are simply asking the world to recognize their right to a tiny place where they can live freely and breathe some fresh air. It is also a story of their endurance and their refusal to bow down to a superior and rapacious power. Elizabeth Laird is to be thanked for having written a loving portrait that reminds the world that the Palestinians are, after all, human beings.
The book is dedicated to the memory of Rachel Corrie, the young woman who was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer. To her credit, Lynne Reid Banks, the author of Broken Bridge , offers a brief comment on this book and says the following: ‘This story of how it feels to be under the heel of an occupier and how it affects day-to-day life is an oddly homely one. We get to care about this boy and his family and, yes, to loathe their oppressors – and I say that as one who lived in Israel for years and has written the story of terrorism in that area for children from the Jewish side… I know it is a good book and needs to be read by others like me.’
Palestinian children as normal human beings
Deborah Ellis and Elizabeth Laird have had to deal with the thorny issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although A Little Piece of Ground elicited near hysterical outrage from hard-core pro-Israeli groups, it is, nonetheless, interesting to note that thousands of copies have sold and its author has gone on to win some important literary prizes. This means that the traditional hold that pro-Israeli groups have had (always exaggerated in my opinion) that resulted in the reluctance of mainstream publishing houses to venture into this area has finally begun to recede.
We now have a number of well-written books that offer a rich and highly textured portrait of children’s lives in times of conflict. More importantly, we now have, for the first time, portraits of Palestinian children as normal human beings engaged in the daily struggle for survival, children with hopes and fears, hates and loves, just like the rest of the world’s children. This is quite remarkable because the Palestinian, as a human being, still does not exist. His or her identity continues to be submerged under various labels – ‘terrorist’, ‘religious fanatic’, ‘a hater of Jews’, ‘a moderate’ or ‘an extremist’. Palestinian casualties are usually just numbers, while Israeli casualties are humans with a life story – we are told their age, where they come from, who their friends are, who their parents are, what their hopes were and so on. It is therefore significant that, for the first time, we can see Palestinian children as normal human beings.
The generalized political discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often obscures the tragic toll the conflict takes on average human beings, innocent civilians, children and women. These two fine books highlight this human dimension and they do it well. In the process, they reveal to us the incredibly tragic cost of this ongoing conflict and the urgent need for its resolution.
Fouad Moughrabi is a Professor at the Department of Political Science, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Deborah Ellis’s Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak is published by Frances Lincoln (978 1 84507 743 3, £5.99 pbk) and Elizabeth Laird’s A Little Piece of Ground is published by Macmillan (978 0 330 43743 1, £5.99 pbk). Lynne Reid Banks’ Broken Bridge , discussed in Part 1 of this article, has been re-issued by Barn Owl Books (1 903015 68 5, £5.99 pbk).