How Israel's Occupation Affects Palestinian Children

By Juan Cole

Mr. Cole is professor of Middle Eastern and South

Asian History at the University of Michigan and author

of Sacred Space and Holy War (I.B. Tauris, 2002). His

website is:

Over one in five Palestinian children in the West Bank

and Gaza (22.5 percent) now suffers from chronic or

acute malnutrition. About one in five is anemic. This

mass of hungry humanity amounts to a population the

size of Minneapolis, about 380,000 kids.

Malnutrition in children makes them more likely to

contract life-threatening diseases. It permanently

reduces intelligence and vastly increases the rate of

attention deficit disorder. Women who were

malnourished in their youths have increased rates of

premature birth and high blood pressure in pregnancy.

The occupying power in the territories, Israel, enjoys

a per capita income of some $17,000 per year, higher

than Spain. In contrast, half of Palestinian families

must now borrow money just to buy food.

Palestinian terrorists certainly bear a great deal of

the blame for this tragedy, insofar as their horrific

actions against innocent Israeli civilians have

understandably led Israel to close its borders to

Palestinian laborers. Unemployment is a prime source

of the problem.

Yet, while the scourge of terrorism in Israel has been

unspeakable, none of it has been committed by toddlers

or infants. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's current

lockdown of the entire population of the West Bank is

a massive form of collective punishment that has

worsened the problem. As the occupying power, Israel

cannot escape responsibility for seeing that its

colonial subjects are at least fed.

The specter of a rich occupying country presiding over

a famished subject population is not unusual in

history. Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen has pointed

out that colonial and other undemocratic governments

often allow hunger and famines, since they are

insulated from popular protest.

Famously, even in the midst of the Great Hunger in

Ireland of 1845 through 1850, eight ships a day left

Ireland carrying exports of wheat, barley, oats, beef,

pork, butter and eggs, sent abroad by British

landlords while their peasants starved.

The French, who ruled Algeria 1830 to 1962, claimed to

be on a "civilizing mission" to their subjects. Yet

their policies of selling grain reserves on the world

market led to a massive famine in the late 1860s when

droughts produced starvation and pestilence.

Only the intervention of the French colonial

authorities could have forestalled the deaths of

thousands, but such officials have often maintained in

history that they bear no responsibility for averting

famine deaths. Some 300,000 Algerians died of hunger

or of the consequent disease outbreaks.

In Sen's classic case, the British civil service in

India failed to stop the starvation of three million

Bengalis in 1943. He argues that famine is not caused

by lack of food, but by an increased inability of the

poor to afford it. Only government intervention, he

argues, can stop such a tragedy.

That Palestinian children are not going so far as

actually to die from their hunger in great numbers has

helped conceal the depth of the crisis. Israel has

ruled the West Bank and Gaza since it conquered them

in 1967, and cannot disclaim responsibility for a

population still under its military rule. A

Palestinian Authority constantly under attack and

immobilized cannot be expected to do hunger relief.

A wealthy and militarily powerful Israel is

responsible under the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949

to see that persons living under its occupation are

not harmed. Letting 380,000 children go chronically or

acutely hungry is a serious violation of international


Since the United States still gives Israel billions of

dollars every year and has acquiesced in the current

West Bank reoccupation and curfew, it also bears a

responsibility for this tragedy. The Palestine issue

has dropped out of news coverage, and even when it is

noticed the focus is on strutting adult male

politicians and military men. Will anyone speak for

the children?


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