As Palestinian Child Day is celebrated on 5 April, Omsiyat Kamal ‘Awaja (15) is one of many Palestinian children for whom the day, like every other, will be marked by unbearable loss and suffering. It is impossible to count the number of children in the Gaza Strip who have been directly affected by loss. Since the outbreak of al-Aqsa Intifada on 28 September 2000, PCHR has documented the killing of 958 Palestinian children and injury of 6,355 others in the Gaza Strip. 313 children were killed during ‘Operation Cast Lead’ (2008-9), and a further 35 children were killed during ‘Operation Pillar of Defence’ in November 2012. PCHR has also documented the tragic consequences on thousands of children of the destruction of their homes, denying them the right to shelter.
A small, mud house with a small yard in the front, piles of pots and kitchen utensils scattered here and there, a number of books leaning against the wall of the house, which barely shelters its residents. That is what the house in which Omsiyat currently lives looks like. The house was built by UNRWA as a temporary alternative for the ‘Awaja family home, which was destroyed by Israeli forces in 2009 during ‘Operation Cast Lead’.
“Before moving to the house that you are seeing now, we lived in a tent for around two years. During that time, we realised exactly what it feels like to be a displaced person with no home. We did not get used to living in a tent. It took us a long time to adjust, as we used to live in a big house with most of the things we needed.”
On 4 January 2009, Israeli forces destroyed the ‘Awaja building in Beit Lahia without any prior warning. The residents fled to a neighbouring tract of land when Israeli bulldozers began to destroy their home. After the house had been destroyed, the children’s mother, Wafaa’ (36), went back to collect what could be salvaged from under the rubble. She was accompanied by three of her children, Diaa, Sobhi, and Ibrahim, each of whom was younger than 13 years of age.
Omsiyat recalls: “My brother, Ibrahim, was the first to be injured, sustaining injuries in his waist. Mom screamed out, so Dad went to check on her, and picked up my brother. They left the house, or what remained of it, and Dad was screaming, ‘My son is injured. We need an ambulance.’ The Israeli soldiers were still in the area. They answered his screams with laughter and then shot more bullets, so that Dad was injured, as well as my mother. My father was left lying on the street and Ibrahim was lying next to him. My mother crawled until she reached my siblings and me where we were hiding behind a wall. We saw the Israeli soldiers approaching and shooting at Ibrahim, and Dad told us later that he had died.”
More than four years later, Omsiyat is still torn apart by regret. Though very young, she feels guilty about the death of her brother because she failed to help him. “When my Dad, Mom, and Ibrahim were injured, I stood there, unable to do anything, though I am the oldest of my siblings. I cannot forget what happened and I feel so much pain whenever I remember that I did not try to help. The idea that my help might have done something, in some way or another, to rescue my brother never leaves my mind, and it causes my stomach to ache. Maybe if I had tried to pull Ibrahim away from the Israeli crossfire, he would still be alive.”
Omsiyat was severely affected by the suffering that she and her family went through. Her father, Kamal (51), says, “Omsiyat suffered so much after the death of her brother and the destruction of our house. It took us a long time to settle into our new life in the tent, and then in the mud house, as neither could compare to the house we used to live in and what I used to provide for my children. My child was executed, my house was destroyed, and I turned from being a father who provided the best he could for his family to a father who is incapable even of providing a suitable house for his family. Days pass by meaninglessly. This how we all feel. Even psychotherapy sessions could not help us to get over this. My wife, children, and I share an indescribable feeling of oppression.”
Omsiyat describes how her father, Kamal (51), tried his best to create a nice environment for his children to live in: “Dad installed an internet line in the tent and bought us a computer. He also replaced most of the electronic devices we used to have in our house, but unfortunately he could not build a new house because he did not have enough money. UNRWA built us this temporary house and told my Dad recently that they are planning to demolish it to build a new permanent house. We are preparing to go back to living in a tent.”
The family will live in a tent again until UNRWA finishes building the permanent house. “Although I know from experience how harsh it is to live in tents, the idea of going back to the tent does not worry me. In comparison to what we have been through, tents seem luxurious.”
Omsiyat used to love drawing landscapes, but today she only draws scenes of death and destruction. “I can see no beauty around me and I am no good at drawing anything but warplanes, tanks, and funerals. I used to love drawing landscapes. All I drew in my paintings were flowers, butterflies, and trees. Now, when I intend to draw a flower, I automatically draw a tank, a tent, or a destroyed house.”
Omsiyat’s story is included in a report that PCHR has recently published, ‘The Best is Yet to Come’, along with the accounts of 14 more children in the Gaza Strip who have experienced bereavement, injury, the injury of a loved one, the destruction of a home, or long-term separation from a father who is in prison. The report was funded by UNICEF.
Palestinian children are a particularly vulnerable group and are among those most affected by Israeli forces' violations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which have been ongoing since 1967. International humanitarian law (IHL) grants children two forms of protection: first, the general protection granted to them as non-combatant individuals; second, special protection as they are considered to be a particularly vulnerable group in times of war and armed conflict.
Under the principle of distinction, parties to a conflict must, at all times, distinguish between civilians and combatants, and civilian objects and military targets. Violations of this principle constitute war crimes, as defined in, inter alia, Articles 8(2)(b)(i), and (ii) of the Statute of the International Criminal Court. Depending on the scale of such attacks, and whether they form part of a plan or policy, such attacks may also constitute the crime of wilful killing and be a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions.
In addition, IHL requires that any attack must be proportionate. An attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated. Furthermore, under the principle of precaution,customary IHL requires that all feasible precautions must be taken to avoid, or at least to minimise, incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects.