Gideon Aran: On Children and Terrorism – Here and Elsewhere

In the middle of the night late last November, Yitzhar, a Jewish settlement near Nablus, was infiltrated by a Palestinian youth, who was identified near a residential area where families were sleeping at the time. Naturally, this type of incident is perceived as threatening, and an emergency response was immediately launched.

The suspect was apprehended with no resistance on his part. An initial search found he was unarmed, and upon questioning was unable to explain his actions or even identify himself. Soon afterwards, all fears were laid at rest and the emergency situation called off; he had come from a neighboring village, and was known to be suffering from a mental disorder.

Within moments, a crowd of settlers gathered around him, among them children and teenagers inflamed and wearing face coverings. Amid curses and shouts about “the crazy terrorist,” the suspect was undressed and his hands and legs bound. Despite the fact that he was lying on the floor, weeping and wailing out loud, they began beating and kicking the helpless Palestinian. He might have died, if it weren't for the intervention of the settlement's Chief of Security, who unmasked them and physically blocked them from reaching the suspect. The commanders of the Paratrooper unit called to the scene, later stated that only by quickly and decisively removing the suspect they had prevented him from being lynched. According to eyewitnesses, some of the most violent aggressors were children under the age of fourteen. They were goaded on by adults standing behind them, who protested against anyone attempting to curb their violence.

That very week saw the publication of the annual UN report on the involvement of juveniles in political violence around the world. This phenomenon, which is well known in history, is tragically manifested these days in armed conflicts between tribal, ethnic/national, territorial, and religious groups in over 50 locations around the world, from Sudan and Nigeria, Iran and Afghanistan to Iraq and Syria. The recent report focuses on the Islamic State (ISIL), which according to studies is inclined to recruit, train, and operate young teenagers not only for logistic support but also in tactical missions exposing them to brutal violence, and in acts of violence, which are normally reserved for adults.

Worrying Similarities

Gideon Aran

Gideon Aran, Sociology and Anthropology Professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem specializing in the study of religion and its relation to violence and extremism, notes that beyond the propagandistic value and practical contribution to the organization, involving children in acts of violence procures their loyalty to both organization and ideology, and serves to form future cadres for the organization.

“Hitler and Mao were both credited with the saying, 'Give me a child of 7, and he is mine forever',” says Gideon Aran. “What emerges from hundreds of interviews in occupied territory, from propaganda movies, and from other testimonies, is that exploitation of children in a holy cause is supported by a deliberate doctrine, and proceeds from an explicit, proclaimed intent of the organization's leadership. Children are used for lookout and reconnaissance missions, dispatches, conveyance, cleaning weapons, dressing wounds, and even housekeeping (including sex) for the militants. UNICEF observers and conflict researchers have established that these children are active participants in torture of captured enemies, and witness executions in close proximity.”

The example Professor Gideon Aran brings is the children of ISIL, dubbed 'cubs' by the organization (a reference to leopard cubs). That was also the name used for children sent by Saddam Hussein on ruthless missions against the Iranians and later the Americans. Similar use of children is made by the Kurdish resistance movement, as well as by Hizbullah and Hamas near Israel's borders.

According to Gideon Aran, a few similarities can be drawn from these cases to children in several Jewish settlements, and this is a cause for doubt and concern. “These children,” he says, “the future reserves of the hardcore religious extremist right, are involved in various acts of violence against their Palestinian neighbors. With the consent or encouragement of adults they throw stones and sometimes petrol bombs at passing vehicles, smash solar panels, slash tires, cut down olive trees and burn crops. They also take part in physical abuse.”

Important points in the UN report that may not be obvious

Professor Aran adds that “only a few years ago, when they were still in kindergarten and the lower grades of primary school, they were already taught to repeat 'Death to the Arabs'. When they grow up some more, in a year or two, they will form the basis for Kahanist groups like the hilltop youths who perpetrate 'price tag' acts.”

It is important, stresses Professor Aran, to exercise some discernment and apply some reservations when drawing this analogy. There are many historical precedents for youth recruitment and volunteering for acts of violence during a national war of liberation and various underground struggles, some of which we regard as legitimate and even exemplary. This is true for Europe (partisans against the Nazis) and even for Israel (Palmach and Etzel against the British mandate). However, in the present case, says Aran, we are seeing even younger children whose behavior is even more violent, on the verge of being murderous. “To begin with, the youngsters fighting in the name of God and/or the nation on the part of Islamistic organizations in the Middle-east, Asia, and Africa, are not 17-18 years and over, but 12-15 years old. This is similar to the children of Yitzhar and other Jewish children in eastern Samaria, in the alleyways of Hebron and in the southern edge of the Judean Desert. They are still in the care of their families and communities, and under the responsibility of their parents and teachers.

“Secondly, the ISIL children, and to a certain degree also the children of Yitzhar, Tapuach, Har Bracha, Elon Moreh, Hadassah House, and Tel Rumeida, take part – directly and indirectly – in veritable acts of terrorism, in wrongful severe physical violence against innocent civilians, with the view of instilling fear and forcing a change of policy on the governments of both sides. Moreover, the terrorism children of our times do not settle for vandalizing property, but insist on firsthand involvement in gratuitous violence, which demonstrates the outcome of dehumanization and profound hatred through methodical indoctrination.”

Exploitation of Children as a Message Denoting a Non-Ephemeral Episode

Prof. Gideon Aran adds that it may be worthwhile to draw some lessons – which may not be obvious – from some of the emphases in the UN report, which can be seen as an allegory for the situation in the West Bank, or perhaps a precursor of a future report on Jewish terrorism and the settler children. International observers, who are anxious about the ISIL cubs, note two further points pertaining to both the goals and results of using children in terrorism. First, the mingling of generations in these organizations is not intended solely for the benefit of efficiency and for socializing the youths, but mainly as a message to onlookers near and far: we are here to stay, to rule, and to shape the future further than the eye can see.

Indoctrinating the young and their inclusion in the circle of severe violence are a way of telling the world that the organization is more than a transient episode which despite its present prominence and huge impact, is expected to die out in a year or two. Are the West Bank settlers also trying to tell us, through their children's violence, that they are here to stay?

The second point relates to the influence that exposure to violence and committing violent actions have on the Jihadi children themselves. There is a strong concern that this violent code of behavior shall be internalized, and these children will grow up to regard violence as a natural, reasonable, legitimate way of life. Researchers speak of a 'de-sensitization' these children undergo with regard to violence. Those forced to witness beheadings, or lured into stoning people, may develop a lack of sensitivity where violence is concerned. It could be that in Yitzhar as well, we will witness a generation of youths immune to human empathy when faced with a feebleminded human wallowing in his own blood and begging for his life. They may become even more callous and cruel than their parents.

The article is based on comments made by Gideon Aran, Sociology and Anthropology Professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who specializes in the study of religion on the one hand and of extremism and violence on the other, and mainly focuses on the interface between them.