When mothers from the neighborhood showed up to protect the children, the Israeli military came to protect the settlers.

One weekend in November, children were playing in the playground in Susiya, a small village near the occupied West Bank city of Hebron. The playground had just reopened after repairs to fix safety issues. Suddenly, a group of Israeli settlers invaded the playground and began to smash the play structures. They screamed curses at the children and brought a German Shepherd dog to frighten and attack them. When mothers from the neighborhood showed up to protect the children, the Israeli military came to protect the settlers. Now the village has received a military order that the playground must be destroyed.

Just a few weeks earlier, in October, Israeli occupation forces destroyed two newly constructed rooms in the six-room Khirbet Al-Maleh School in the Jordan Valley. MECA had provided funds for the new classrooms and small clinic, and we worked with Rebuilding Alliance on a campaign to get members of the US Congress to pressure Israel to restore the structures. (Go to www.mecaforpeace.org/SaveOurSchools to send a letter.) The rest of the school building and four other schools in nearby Palestinian Bedouin communities are under demolition orders. They could be destroyed at any moment.

Since 1948, generation by generation, Palestinian children have been targeted by the Israeli occupation. During my childhood in Dheisheh Refugee Camp near Bethlehem in the 1970s, the only place we could play was in the dirt streets of our camp. We didn’t have a playground or a park. Even our play in the streets was constantly disrupted by the attacks of the Israeli occupation forces. At our United Nations school, the teachers usually rang the opening bell by hand. But many days, the shooting by the Israeli army was the bell that woke us up. Instead of the bell, bullets or teargas would bring us running into the classroom. And often we were under curfew, my whole family squeezed into one small room for weeks at a time while we were prevented from going to school.

Now, in the beginning of 2022, Palestinian children are still suffering the same attacks on their right to be children. Not just children living in refugee camps, but children all over the West Bank who need to cross checkpoints to get to their schools. Children who are attacked by settlers as they try to walk to school. And children are arrested, tortured, and imprisoned by the only country in the world that tries children in military courts.

For children in Gaza, it is the siege that defines their lives. Children under 15 constitute 41 percent of the population of Gaza. The siege started in 2007, so for those children, they have spent their whole lives in an open-air prison, surrounded by barbed wire, walls, snipers, military ships in the harbor, and drones overhead. These children have never been allowed to visit other parts of Palestine: Jerusalem, just 62 miles away, or Hebron, less than 50 miles away.

And now there are hundreds of children working in the streets in Gaza. Because of the economic impact of the siege, they have dropped out of school and are trying to help their families by selling chewing gum or other small things. This is also a growing problem in the West Bank, and also for Palestinian and Syrian refugees in Lebanon, where tens of thousands of children have become child laborers at the age of eleven or even younger. Of course, in addition to losing out on their education and the childhood they deserve, in the streets they are vulnerable, they can be abused.

Many reports have been published about these human rights violations, but no one has yet held Israel accountable. Compiling reports has become an alternative to taking action. The news about how many Palestinian children have been killed, tortured, imprisoned, or put on house arrest has become routine. The international community should be ashamed that Palestinian children are living without a childhood.

Working in MECA, we have to address this reality. I remain optimistic because people on the ground have their own initiatives to reduce the impact, to change the children’s lives. I have been working in MECA for twelve years, and I never thought we would have a project on child labor, because Palestinians have always made sure their children went to school. But now a MECA project in Gaza brings psychologists and social workers to families to support children to return to school. Another MECA project supports children in Silwan, East Jerusalem who have been traumatized by interrogations, prison, or house arrest.

Throughout Palestine, we work with our partners to protect the children and help them heal. The Israeli occupation tries to confiscate their right to their childhood. We work to give it back. If the Israelis destroy a playground, we build a playground.