Israel’s War on Children: The Psychological Repression of Gaza’s Youth by Israeli State Violence and Occupation

Chris Hedges sits down with author and activist Laila el-Haddad to discuss the psychological repression of Gaza’s youth by Israeli state violence and occupation.


Hi. I’m Chris Hedges. Welcome to Days of Revolt.

Today we’re going to be discussing the slow-motion genocide that the Israeli government–with, of course, American support–is orchestrating against the 1.8 million Palestinians in Gaza, what life is like for them, how the configurations of repression and violence perpetrated by the Israeli state have changed, and what’s happening in the world’s largest open-air prison.

Joining me in the studio is Laila el-Haddad. She has edited, along with Refaat Alareer, of Gaza Unsilenced, an anthology of writings. It includes some of my own writings. She has spent much of her life in and out of Gaza. She has also authored Gaza Mom: Palestine, Politics, Parenting, and Everything in Between, along with The Gaza Kitchen.

Laila, salamu alaykum.

EL-HADDAD: Alaikum-Salaam.

HEDGES: Thank you for coming.

I spent many, many years in Gaza, seven years. I was the Middle East bureau chief for The New York Times, so it’s a reality that I know intimately, as you do. And I think that for many people, while they read the statistics, they don’t grasp the daily struggle and even horror that is visited upon Palestinians. And we must remember that 50 percent of the population in Gaza is under the age of 18. I think it’s a 75 percent is under the age of 25.

EL-HADDAD: That’s right.

HEDGES: You’ve lived there with your son. And the Israelis, by creating this siege, what they set up in 2007–is that correct?

EL-HADDAD: Yeah, sort of an ongoing closure.

HEDGES: Curtail all sorts of basic items, including limiting quite consciously the caloric intake of Palestinians. The numbers of Palestinians, especially in the refugee camps like Jabalia and Khan Yunis that depend on Islamic charities or UN in order to eat, are staggering.

As a mother with a child, what were the most difficult obstacles that you faced, just in terms of sustaining your own family?

EL-HADDAD: It’s a great question. And those obstacles are continuously changing. But it’s just–I think the thing I remember the most is the–sort of how mentally oppressive life can be there, feeling that everything about your life, the air that you breathe, the water that you drink, when you can turn the electricity on or off, what sorts of foods are available to you, where and how you can move in and out of your own home, are all being controlled by an outside force.

HEDGES: Oh, and we should also mention the water, because huge swaths of Gaza is–because the Israelis have drained the aquifers, you don’t have potable water. You don’t have water that you can drink.

EL-HADDAD: Absolutely. They drain that coastal aquifer that central Gaza sits on, so that before the water gets to Gaza it’s–it’s like you were saying; it’s depleted and full of nitrates right now, and because the aquifer was overpumped when the settlements that took up a significant portion of Gaza’s landmass would fill their pools and water their lawns with it.

HEDGES: Oh, I remember being in Khan Yunis and looking in the Khan Yunis refugee camp when the settlement was there, which was surrounded by cyclone fencing and guarded by probably Druze border guards, and there was no water to drink in the camp, and we looked through that fencing, looking at the sprinkler system on the lawns, because these settlements look like suburban Californian–.

EL-HADDAD: Absolutely, yeah, and not to mention having prided themselves in being sort of on the forefront of, like, organic gardening or, like, organic orchids and all sorts of business that–you know, strawberries, that are all very water intensive. So the result, of course, is that if you open the faucet today in Gaza City, the water is essentially saline. And something like–having spoken to the Palestinian Hydrological Society and others, 90 percent of the water is unfit to drink in Gaza, which means that most people have to rely on buying filtered water. And that can get very expensive when you have large families, which many Palestinians in Gaza do, not to mention that you require electricity to be able to pump, to be able to operate the water pumps, right? And now there’s, like, 12 or 13 hour rotating electricity shortages and cuts due to Israel having bombed the main power plant there in 2006 and it still being semi-operational and so on.

So all this contributes to real, like I was saying, a mental–a feeling of mental suffocation, and especially when you’re trying to raise a child and knowing that there’s all these–and I was mentioning earlier that your interaction now with your occupier, with your colonizer, is almost nonexistent in the sense that they’re invisible occupiers now, right?

HEDGES: Well, we should go back a little bit, because when I was in Gaza–I was in the Middle East from 1988 to 1995, and there you saw members of the Israeli Defense Force at checkpoints. Of course, the settlers were still in Gaza.

EL-HADDAD: And sometimes in Gaza City they would even come.

HEDGES: Yeah, right. And the Israeli Air Force would bomb–they were bombing–I think they bombed the police academy when I was there with F-16s. But Gaza’s been reconfigured from kind of a much more primitive form of occupation on the ground to a kind of high tech prison where you have drones up 24 hours a day, you have along the security perimeters that have been built by Israel electronic, computer-run machine guns. And, of course, they’re using very heavy artillery, missiles.

EL-HADDAD: And then the main naval blockade, right?

HEDGES: As well as the naval blockade. Right. You can–it’s a three-mile limit [crosstalk]

EL-HADDAD: Right. At something like three to six, depending on how well the Palestinians are behaving.

HEDGES: Right. And with the withdrawal of the settlers, they really use almost indiscriminate firepower in a way that they didn’t, I think. And they’re also testing out all sorts of new military hardware that they attempt to sell. They’re one of the largest arms dealers in the world, including–.

EL-HADDAD: Absolutely. Gaza’s become their testing ground, in a sense. Yeah.

HEDGES: Right, the sonic booms I think you were there for.

EL-HADDAD: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely terrifying. And the amount of firepower they use and the sorts of weapons increase year after year. Where it used to be that, like, in the ’90s, or even in the beginning of the Second Intifada, the worst that we would see was, like, helicopter gunship fire. That was about it. And then came the F-16s, and then came, after the Israelis were evacuated, the settlers, then came the sonic booms, which they wouldn’t have dared to use before.

HEDGES: Why don’t you explain what those are.

EL-HADDAD: So that’s low-flying F-16 jets breaking the sound barrier intentionally, to inflict psychological terror on the civilian population. And it was something that I believe the Israelis used as well in Lebanon in 2006, and possibly, if I’m not mistaken, before that. And it’s illegal, obviously, because you’re doing it intentionally to terrorize the civilian–that’s the sole purpose of it. And it’s–you don’t hear the jet coming, right, ’cause they’re breaking the sound barrier, and then, before you know it, you just hear an intense explosion that–the best way to describe it is like you feel like something on the inside out is exploding. Like, you just get completely disoriented and start shaking, don’t know where you are. You feel like the ground beneath you–. And they were doing this on a regular basis in their so-called attempt to deter any Palestinian resistance from Gaza, in addition to regular artillery fire from the border. And then that, of course, progressed to an all-out assault and bombing and Cast Lead and after that.

HEDGES: Well, there’s been three major assaults. The worst one was last summer.

EL-HADDAD: In the last past five years. Yeah.

HEDGES: Worst one last summer. And I think it’s important to realize that these assaults seem to have two objectives. Obviously, the Israeli government would like to break support for Hamas. I think the opposite has happened, but that is part of the reason for this massive indiscriminate violence, the use of sophisticated attack craft, artillery, mechanized units against a population that is defenseless, that has no army, no navy, no command and control, no mechanized units, no artillery, and can fire off rockets, which I think Norman Finkelstein calls enhanced fireworks–not that I defend the firing of those rockets indiscriminately, but to somehow compare those rockets to what is being done to the Palestinians is, for those of us that have been there, kind of a joke.

The other is to reduce Palestinians to a subsistence level, so that daily life–.

EL-HADDAD: And I would argue that’s the real goal, I think.

HEDGES: It becomes such a struggle to get food.

EL-HADDAD: Definitely. Yeah. I mean, what I always say is that it doesn’t matter who’s in power on the Palestinian side, because long before Hamas, there was Fatah, and we were hearing the same sorts of arguments from the Israeli side–there is no partner for peace, and the Palestinians only want terror, and the mothers teach their children–you know, this is something that, of course, I as a mother is very important to me–they teach their children to hate, and on and on and on. So now it’s Hamas. Before it was Fatah. You know, in the West Bank, there’s no rockets. You’re still getting besieged and bombed and so on there and colonized.

HEDGES: But the food situation is not as bad in the West Bank.

EL-HADDAD: And so the food situation. So–right. No. No, it’s not. But, I mean, still, you’re taking together the West Bank and Gaza poverty levels are [crosstalk]

HEDGES: I mean, let’s stop and just–in the West Bank, they’ve created mini Gazas, bantustans that are completely surrounded, where they can–.

EL-HADDAD: And severed from one another.

HEDGES: Severed from one another, where they can, when they want to, shut everything down and essentially create mini ghettos that replicate the large ghetto of Gaza.

EL-HADDAD: Exactly. And, in fact, I always say Gaza was sort of the model or the pilot project for the West Bank, in the sense that before they began to build the separation barrier around the West Bank that eats up 40 percent of the–essentially annexes 40 percent of the West Bank, they built it around Gaza. So very few people know that that started in the 1990s during the Oslo Accords, right, sort of the so-called decade of peace, and continued. And now there’s this electric, fortified fence that you talked about surrounding Gaza. So anything they want to try out in the West Bank they’ll first try out in Gaza.

And back to–we were speaking about the food situation. You know, you’ll notice that if you kind of study the targets that the Israelis bombed are overwhelmingly–we talked about infrastructure, institutions, and agricultural. And you see this sort of systematic attempt to destroy Gaza’s productive sector, not only through the various assaults and raids against Gaza, but also through the ongoing siege and closure of Gaza.

And this was–there was article, I believe, in Time magazine, and there was an Israeli governmental official who had stated that the objectives of the blockade were no development and no prosperity, and then no humanitarian crisis, meaning, like, they wanted to kind of keep things in check, thus this caloric formula. Like, look, we’re allowing in 1300 calories per person, so everything’s fine, but then keeping things kind of always teetering on the brink of collapse, never providing them with enough access, very importantly, ’cause you can provide people with food. But what does that mean in terms of food sovereignty and people’s access to those foods? It doesn’t mean anything. So targeting that productive sector, making sure the population is never fully self-sufficient or able to be productive in any way, destroying factories. Like, after Cast Lead, 95 percent of Palestinian factories were either destroyed or partially destroyed or inoperational, not allowing in–a ban on the import of parts for factories, cement, water filters, all this kind of thing. So the point isn’t let’s just kill as many people as we can. Right? That would be easy. No, it’s actually much more sinister: let’s destroy the productive sector and their ability to thrive and prosper and become self-sufficient.

HEDGES: When I was in Gaza, I knew Dr. Abdul Aziz Rantisi, who headed the political wing of Hamas. And as a ten- or 11-year-old boy in 1956, he was in Khan Yunis when the Israelis did their hundred-day occupation of Gaza. And in order to break the back of resistance, what were known as Fedayeen rounded up boys and men of military age, lined them up against walls, and killed them. Joe Sacco has documented this in his magnificent book Footnotes in Gaza, and that experience of watching his uncles, cousins, neighbors being shot in cold blood, radicalized Rantisi.

And I think that’s what we’re seeing throughout Gaza. It’s not seen from the outside. But this horrific and ongoing violence–500 and some Palestinian children–children–were murdered indiscriminately last summer, coupled with the humiliation, the collective humiliation. We mentioned the struggle to get food, and many people are dependent on handouts. I think up to 80 percent are dependent on some handouts. The fact that you don’t have adequate medical supplies. And when people have medical emergencies, they’re often–they can’t get out of Gaza to get to a hospital in Israel, and they will die at the border crossing.

I was at an ambush at Netzarim with a 19-year-old kid who was killed. And when I went to visit his family, they told me that when the news came that his brother had been shot dead by the Israelis, he went missing, and they found him walking down the road with a kitchen knife going back to Netzarim to attack Israelis.

And oftentimes the violence that is carried out by the acts of resistance by Palestinians, whether it’s from suicide bombings to rockets fired into Israel, I think the causal factors of that are overlooked, that it’s the Israeli, the massive industrial and sustained use of Israeli force that has brutalized a people to such an extent that violence is a very natural reaction, one that all of us would have. And I think we also have to add that when you are a young man in Gaza, you have no work, you have no money, you have no capacity, because you don’t have any resources to get married, you’re sleeping ten to the floor of a concrete hovel in a refugee camp. The only way that you can affirm yourself is to become a Shahid, to become a martyr. And I’d like to talk about this, the psychological consequences of the horrific daily repression, the humiliation, and the struggle, and what it’s doing to people.

EL-HADDAD: Yeah. I mean, you mentioned earlier that something like 75 percent of Gaza’s population is under the age of 25. And in addition to the ban on so many things that we mentioned before, like certain types of foods and cements or whatever, what the youth of Gaza always emphasized to me is, like, look, first and foremost this is a siege on our freedoms that needs to be–people need to remember that, a siege on the ability of farmers to farm, on fishermen to fish, and a categorical ban on students to study outside of Gaza. So there’s actually a categorical ban on a certain category, you know, ages of, I think, up to 35 or 40. Palestinian youth are forbidden from traveling outside of Gaza to study, be it in Beit Zayit or Jerusalem or wherever. And that’s really important to remember, too. What happens after you–if you are able to have the means to graduate in Gaza? Then what? They just published a figure saying that now Gaza has the highest unemployment rates in the world. And you do see the spirit in youth, despite everything. Yes, of course, the natural reaction of anyone, right–if I was to poke you ten times on the face, eventually you’re going to swat me. But then again–.

HEDGES: Well, if you–and imagine if you shoot my mother and father.

EL-HADDAD: And imagine if I shoot your mother and father. And we should remind people that there’s 10,000 severely injured people in Gaza, including many, many amputees now, as a result.

HEDGES: Who can’t receive prosthetics and–.

EL-HADDAD: Who can’t receive prosthetics. What kind of life? You know. And yes, there’s help and there’s supportive organizations and so on, but then, yeah, what future? I mean, we have to remind people that–and you mentioned this, but Gaza is surrounded by completely impervious borders, sea, controlled by land, air. There’s no way out to seek refuge.

HEDGES: Which we should make clear that the military government of Sisi in Egypt–

EL-HADDAD: In Egypt. Yeah.

HEDGES: –in alliance with Israel–

EL-HADDAD: Absolutely. Yeah.

HEDGES: –because they are sworn enemies of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hamas as well. Yeah.

EL-HADDAD: Yeah. Exactly. And so there’s no–. And when we hear stories of, like, migrant refugees from Syria and here and there risking the Mediterranean and going–you know, that’s not even an option for Gazans; as dangerous as that journey is, that’s not even an option. So, again, as a youth, what do you do?

And again, it’s that severe psychological repression. I mean, somebody the other day said to me, close friends of theirs in Gaza that they mentor said to her, he doesn’t know what to do anymore. He’s lost all hope. He feels like–.

HEDGES: Well, when you brutalize people, they become brutal. I mean, you bomb Cambodia,–

EL-HADDAD: And that’s the goal, isn’t it?

HEDGES: –you bomb Cambodia and–it is the goal. You bomb Cambodia, you end up with Pol Pot. You bomb Iraq for 12 years, you end up with ISIS. And if you read accounts of the Sobibor uprising, in the death camp, when the Jews rose up and managed to get crude knives and burst into the offices of either German administrators or Nazi camp guards–I remember reading one account where a Jewish inmate starts stabbing one of the Germans who is administrating, going, this is for my mother, this is for my father, this is for my sister. And the Palestinians are reacting the way we would react if we lived in that situation.

EL-HADDAD: And to be honest, they’re reacting very–I mean, their reaction is very subdued, I should say. We would probably react much more violently, I would think. I mean, if someone was to dispossess you of your land and completely divide you from one another as a people, fragment you, colonize you, besiege you, and then, on top of that, bomb you continuously, as you were saying, in a sustained manner,–

HEDGES: And deny your children medicine.

EL-HADDAD: –and deny your children medicine and education and freedom, prevent you from farming, and so on, how would you react? And not over the course of one year, but over the course of 60-some years. So I think the reaction has been very subdued and mild, as a matter of fact. And they constantly inspire, I always say, especially the youth and how they have reacted. I especially like to focus and narrate the stories of especially the women, but also the youth and how they really struggle to survive with dignity and retain that humanity, despite every attempt to deprive them of it, ’cause that’s ultimately the goal, how you keep the family unit together and sane, right?

HEDGES: I would say that it’s a slum. When I went into the refugee camps, it was that structure of five prayers a day, the stricture against alcohol, tobacco, because these are substances that you begin to retreat into when you are in despair. And part of my anger at Charlie Hebdo was that they were taunting the wretched of the earth about the one thing that gave them dignity and held them together as human beings and gave them a sense of purpose.

EL-HADDAD: A sense of hope and purpose. Absolutely.

HEDGES: Hope and purpose and dignity and courage and integrity. And I think that–I don’t know if you agree, but I think that the reason that the Palestinians have been able to react in such a humane fashion, with such dignity, and have been able to retain the ability to resist–and we should make clear that most resistance has been nonviolent–has been the fact of their faith.

EL-HADDAD: Yeah. I mean, I agree. That’s my personal opinion. I mean, how can you endure in such a situation without faith? In the absence of that, there’s nothing. There’s nothing left. If you look at the situation around you and the forces that are supporting it, you would lose hope and all faith.

HEDGES: Well, I spent seven years in the Middle East and I walked away with a very deep and abiding respect for Islam.

EL-HADDAD: Let’s hope that that beauty and that spirit endures and not the worse elements that are sort of, like you were saying, in the aftermath of bombings and colonizations and wars, and then you kind of leave, and–you know.

HEDGES: But fundamentalism is its own animal. Fundamentalism in every religion looks the same, whether it’s Christian fundamentalism, Jewish fundamentalism, or Islamic fundamentalism.

EL-HADDAD: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

HEDGES: And fundamentalists in–you know, one-fifth of the world’s population is Muslim, and fundamentalists like ISIS or al-Qaeda constitute not even 1 percent.

EL-HADDAD: That’s what my husband constantly reminds people. It just happens to be this arc of history that we’re in right now. And, yeah, it’s very ugly, unfortunately.

But like you were saying, you have to look beyond the headlines or beneath the headlines.

HEDGES: Well, don’t read the headlines. You’re not going to–.

EL-HADDAD: Or don’t read them all. I don’t–like I was saying, I don’t have TV or I don’t read the headlines.

HEDGES: I think the frustration for those of us who come out of the Middle East and come out of Gaza is that what happens is that these people are treated little better than animals by the Israeli government, little better than livestock led to slaughter, with of course complete American complicity. I remember F-16s bombing Gaza and going to bomb sites and picking up pieces of shrapnel that say “Made in Dayton, Ohio”.

EL-HADDAD: And then you see a sign said funded by–“This reconstruction is funded by the American people” right next to it.

HEDGES: Right. There you go.

People see the explosion. People see the rage. But they don’t see the long, steady, slow drip of humiliation, collective punishment, violence, frustration that they–. And so what happens is that because all of that is ignored by the outside world and by the media, it’s only when something explodes. And then, because there is no understanding of what led to that rage,–

EL-HADDAD: Absolutely. The context of what–. Yeah.

HEDGES: They’re certified as kind of insane–.

EL-HADDAD: Well, they’re crazy. I mean, look how they react. They’re so violent. And everything becomes sort of conflated. Well, it’s the religion is so violent or whatever. And this is something, too, that the Israelis use in their attacks against–well, it’s–you know, it’s–.

HEDGES: Yes. It’s called racism.

EL-HADDAD: Yeah. There you go.

HEDGES: Thank you, Laila.

EL-HADDAD: It was my pleasure. Thank you, Chris.

HEDGES: And thank you for joining Days of Revolt.

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