International media coverage of casualties in the Gaza Strip tends to single out children. Their suffering, and the loss of their lives, are placed front and center. Often, Palestinian women are also mentioned. And a similar focus on “womenandchildren”—a term coined by Cynthia Enloe three decades ago—can be found in human rights campaigns as well.
Meanwhile, nowhere near this level of attention is given to the suffering and deaths of adult Palestinian men. Their names, faces, and stories are all too often disregarded.
And yet, most of the fatalities in Gaza—more than half during Israel’s current military offensive and more than 70 percent since the turn of this century—have been adult men. The singling out of children and women, even if motivated by the best of intentions, risks devaluing these men’s lives.
A key reason for the international community’s neglect of Palestinian men is the belief that children and women are, by definition, uniquely vulnerable, innocent, or both. But even if in today’s world some forms of vulnerability correlate with age and gender, it makes little sense to speak of all “children,” “women,” and “men” as distinct and uniform groups.
According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child—the world’s most widely ratified treaty—the term “child” generally applies to anyone under the age of 18 years. If we follow this definition, then half of Gaza’s population are children. Palestinians within this group vary considerably in their ages, circumstances, and traits. A 17-year-old child, for instance, may well be less vulnerable than many Gazan “men.” Lumping womenandchildren together as a single vulnerable and innocent group only makes matters worse.
The image of children and women as helpless victims also ignores their active role in the Palestinian national struggle. Children, specifically, have been at the forefront of political activity throughout Palestinian history, but their presence in this arena first garnered substantial global attention during the Intifada of 1987–1993. Later, when they grew up and were interviewed about their involvement in this popular uprising, many of them said that it had made them stronger, more self-reliant, politically and socially aware, and more responsible than they would have otherwise been.
In Palestine and elsewhere, children often exhibit remarkable resilience and resourcefulness, sometimes more so than many of their adult counterparts. Working children, who support their families financially, are one example. Child caregivers who look after their ill parents are another. Children who serve as translators for their immigrant parents are yet another example. And the list could go on.
On the flip side, adults—including adult men—often lean on children. As an example, consider the words of Ahed Tamimi—the 16-year-old girl from the West Bank whose incarceration in an Israeli prison drew worldwide condemnations three years ago. “The minors were really the strongest part of the prison (population),” she said at the time, adding: “They would even give the adults strength.”
In addition, according to studies of wars in other parts of the world, draft-age men are a particularly vulnerable group. Among other things, they are at a higher risk of being summarily killed, arbitrarily detained, and forcefully recruited.
Vulnerability, then, is far too complex to be reduced to age and gender. To associate vulnerability with children and women—and with them alone—is to do a disservice to Palestinians across the age and gender spectrum.
As for innocence, the international law of war draws a distinction between two groups: civilians and combatants. The former, presumed innocent because of their non-participation in armed violence, are afforded special legal protections. The latter, in contrast, are considered legitimate military targets. In addition, various international documents—including the Geneva Conventions, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the UN Declaration on the Protection of Women and Children in Emergency and Armed Conflict—grant special protections to children and women in wartime. As a result, the phrase “women and children” tends to be used as a shorthand for “innocent civilians.”
What the focus on children and women as innocent victims implies, then, is that Palestinian men are killable targets. Ultimately, this notion plays into the Israeli military’s hands, serving its attempts to legitimize its violence.
Israel is not alone in this regard. The United States has used a similar rationale to justify its drone attacks on men in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq. The depiction of Palestinian, Afghani, Iraqi and other Muslim men as dangerous terrorists is an all-too-familiar Islamophobic trope. In this way, the “combatant” label risks increasingly being equated not only with age (adults) and gender (male), but also with religion (Muslim), nationality, and race.
To fend off accusations that it indiscriminately attacks populated areas, Israel has also been accusing Gazans of using children’s presence to shield military forces or areas from assaults. This charge was concocted as a preemptive legal defense of sorts: the implication that Palestinian children were participating in combat purportedly prevents and thus exempts Israel from targeting only adult combatants. This claim conveniently overlooks Israeli soldiers’ own use of non-combatant Palestinians, including children, as human shields for decades. In 2014, an Israeli commander who had authorized this practice on several occasions was promoted to deputy chief of the general staff, and he is currently a member of Knesset (Israel’s parliament). Moreover, if civilians’ proximity to military sites makes them human shields, then such proximity occurs not only in Gaza—one of the world’s most densely populated territories—but also within Israel’s pre-1967 borders, where large military bases have been placed in or near urban centers.
As cogently argued by Maya Mikdashi during Israel’s military offensive on Gaza in 2014,
The Israeli war machine, much like the US war machine in Afghanistan or Iraq, does not protect Palestinian queers and women and children. It kills them, maims them, and dispossesses them alongside their loved ones—for the simple reason that they are Palestinian ... Today, the difference between Palestinian womenandchildren and Palestinian men is not in the production of corpses, but rather in the circulation of those corpses within dominant and mainstream discursive frames that determine who can be publicly mourned as “victims” of Israel’s war machine.
Undoubtedly, Palestinian children and women deserve the international community’s support. But so do their adult male counterparts. To focus only on the former is to play it safe, because many around the world have been programed to be less compassionate to men, especially those from colonized and marginalized communities. Such selective empathy should not be reinforced.
For all these reasons, the global conversation about Palestine needs to change. Palestinian men deserve to live and flourish. Their lives matter. Unless they are given due attention, Israel will never be held to account for its violence.