Text size

Despite everything, they continue to show up: children with rocks in their hands. A lonely police jeep enters the edges of Ramallah. The adults go about their routine, and a few kids pop up from somewhere, waiting in ambush around the corner for the sounds that signal the return of that hated symbol.

Sometimes a jeep or two stop exactly opposite the boys' school in the center of Betunya, west of Ramallah, seemingly intentionally in the morning, when the children are streaming in, and seemingly intentionally in the afternoon, when the children are streaming out. There are always some children who will try their hand at throwing rocks, while inside the jeeps the young troops, not much older than the schoolchildren (which might be why they chose that place in particular) will try their hand with their own weapons - stun grenades and tear gas.

Sometimes it's not one jeep but two, backed up by an armored personnel carrier and a military ambulance - a frightening convoy that makes its way through the center of the city along the crowded market road, apparently on the way to make arrests. Children and some non-children charge. The soldiers sometimes only respond with speeding up the vehicles, but sometimes they insist on firing a few rounds a few inches over the heads of the people, whether they are stone-throwers or not. At those short distances it doesn't matter if the bullets are live or rubber-coated steel. Both are equally lethal.

At the checkpoints, where the soldiers with their vehicles and weapons are permanently positioned, children insist on taking a high position - a pile of dirt or hill - to throw stones at a target they probably can't even each, the soldiers in their helmets, so far away that they are a symbol, not a real target. With the horizon or the sun behind them, the children look like lithe athletes practicing some magical sport. Sometimes the soldiers ignore the children, sometimes they respond with stun grenades and tear gas that frightens everyone in the area, except the children, and sometimes the soldiers respond with shots that are not meant to wound or kill - because there's no real danger to the soldiers - but which nonetheless do wound and kill.

In Nablus, Tul Karm, Jenin, Rafah and Beit Hanoun, it's not jeeps but tanks and various armored cars that the children face, practicing their unequal fighting. The desperation of this symbolic fighting, as far as they are concerned, does not deter them, just as they are apparently undeterred by the life-threatening dangers posed by the lethal machines of steel, which children of three can name with more expertise than they can say the names of the wildflowers in the fields.

Parents and other adults say to the children, If this would get rid of the occupation, okay, but you are endangering your lives and are not getting rid of the occupation. Parents scrape together their last savings to buy a computer for their children or send them to the Internet center - even in the Qalandiyah refugee camp there are Internet centers - in the hope the children will become addicted just as elsewhere children are addicted to computer games. Those with cars take the children back and forth from school, but most don't have cars and have no way of keeping track of their children at every moment of the day.

There's something very class-conscious about the phenomenon of stone-throwing children, the wounded and the dead. The refugee camps are closest to the junctions where IDF troops are permanently positioned. It's the lower-class neighborhoods that get more surprise visits from the army, and their crowded narrow streets invite response. In the villages, the adults and children experience the closure constantly despite the green areas that surround them. The checkpoints around the villages have turned every trip to the city into an unusual occasion, only experienced by those for whom it is absolutely necessary: workers, officials, students and the ailing. A seven-minute trip has been turned into an adventure of an hour or more; an adventure that takes more time costs more and is more dangerous. Thus, the children are blocked access to the typical leisure activities of childhood, the universal activities that the cities continue to offer: judo and debka courses, basketball and English, children's theater and swimming.

The broad street beyond the checkpoint, where only Israelis are allowed to drive, has become more than a passing symbol. The black asphalt, so close and yet so far away, is the embodiment of Israeli power and the regime of discrimination in the eyes of those children. The road and the cars on it have both become hated symbols of that discrimination.

If there's no danger of being killed, the danger of arrest is always present. There are nighttime arrests - when a troop of armed soldiers takes a child just awakened by his father to some unknown place to be interrogated about throwing stones and then is told to sign something written in a Hebrew the child can't understand. Not infrequently, the soldiers hit them. Only a few years separate the ones who do the hitting and the ones who are hit. But at that age, in those circumstances, at night, there's a vast distance between those in power and those who are controlled. The reports about crowded, stinking detention cells, where children are held from a week to three months, are not known to Israelis, but every Palestinian child knows them well.

And still, they are there, stones in their hands. Fear of being considered a coward? Seduced into the violence? Imitation? Bragging? Boredom? Not enough leisure culture?

All those explanations are true, but on their own are not enough. There's one basic feeling behind them, without which those explanations are nothing but pop psychology. One can learn that basic feeling from a brother and sister, 9 and 10 years old, whose parents make every effort they can to enrich their children's lives with the activity of normal children, not with danger. When the two heard about Israeli youths in jail for their refusal to serve in the territories, the 9-year-old asked in amazement, "There are Jews who prefer to go to jail instead of coming here as soldiers, to us?" and his sister answered, "Apparently they prefer to be locked up so they don't cause us harm."