Suffering of Palestinian Children Is Something Both Sides Can Agree On

Even Israelis should be able to realize that they are responsible if Palestinian children in Area C are malnourished and worse.

Margaret Atwood
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Margaret Atwood

As anticipated, this article drew some controversy; the author's response can be found below the piece.

Children returning home from school in the West Bank. Credit: AP

More than 40 years ago, a psychiatrist named Eric Berne published a best-seller called "Games People Play" that is still instructive reading for those involved in difficult negotiations or complex debates.

Berne defines "game" as "an ongoing series of complementary ulterior transactions progressing to a well-defined, predictable outcome. Descriptively, it is a recurring set of transactions, often repetitious, superficially plausible, with a concealed motivation; or, more colloquially, a series of moves with a snare, or 'gimmick.'"

All of Berne's "games" are basically dishonest, as they have an ulterior motive, and some are self-destructive as well as destructive to others. The word "game" suggests frivolity, but some games are grimly played and deadly serious - deadly in the literal sense. The term "war games" is no accident.

One of the games Berne describes is called "Why Don't You - Yes But." In this game, the player complains about a problem, and the dupes - who are conned into "helping" - propose solutions; but for every "Why Don't You" offered, the player comes up with a "Yes But" - a reason why the solution can't possibly work. Finally the helpers run out of ideas and are left feeling stupid and inadequate, and the player wins: His problem is smarter and bigger ... The only trouble is, he still has the problem. But maybe that's the goal he was aiming for all along: maintenance of the status quo, so that he can keep on doing whatever he was doing already.

Has Israel been playing a very long game of "Why Don't You - Yes But" when it comes to the "Palestinian problem"? Is there a mirror-image game in which Israel itself is "the problem"? Certainly the outside commentators - pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian - are ready with a "yes but" whenever someone they consider an opponent proposes anything like a logjam-breaker. The ideological positions are by now so dug in that the field of discourse resembles the western front in World War I: There are trenches everywhere, and anyone who sticks his head up is met with a barrage of well-worn verbal missiles: "mental defective," "idiot," "criminal" and the like. If some witless innocent lacking a trench wanders into the line of vision babbling of human brotherhood or something seen as equally fatuous, all those entrenched let fly.

Why anyone considers it an aid to positive resolutions to heave these overblown nouns and adjectives through the air is anyone's guess: If convincing others is the goal, this tactic fails, as the heavers sound like irrational fanatics. It does, however, deter anyone not already entrenched from taking an interest. ("Don't touch it! It's a swamp!" ) Perhaps the adjective-heaving comes from frustration, which is understandable considering the lack of positive momentum. Or perhaps it's a universal human characteristic: Having chosen and dug one's trench, one feels the need to defend it.

Meanwhile, the game of "Why Don't You - Yes But" goes on. "Return the Golan Heights to Syria." "Yes, but we need the strategic position for security." "Join the whole area politically and give Palestinians equal rights, thus making the state a true democracy." "Yes, but then Jewish Israelis would be outnumbered and unsafe, as in the Diaspora." "Invite Hamas to the peace talks, because nothing can be resolved otherwise." "Yes, but they want to destroy us." "Tear down the punitive walls." "Yes, but then we would get blown up in cafes again." "Acknowledge Israel's right to exist behind the 1967 borders." "Yes, but Israel is not a legitimate state, and anyway all the land is Palestinian by right, and anyone who would accept less is a quisling." "Stop kicking Palestinians off their land and making it impossible for them to reach what land they still have." "Yes, but this is allowed by our laws, and it's for security, and you are an enemy of Israel and also an anti-Semite." "Stop killing Israeli civilians." "Yes, but that's the only weapon we have left." And so forth. Surely the nature of the conversation has to change, on all sides - that is, if it's not really a game of "Yes But."

I proposed a different sort of game to myself: Would it be possible to choose a subject on which all those entrenched could agree, for which there is a clear solution, and to which there would be no plausible "Yes But" response? Let's give it a try.

For instance: What about the Palestinian children of Area C? (Area C, for those witless innocents who have never heard of it, is not that part of the West Bank controlled by the Palestinian Authority, nor is it Gaza, for which Israel now claims no administrative responsibility other than blockading it. Instead it is that part of Palestine entirely occupied and controlled by Israel since 1967. ) According to a 2009 report by Save The Children U.K. called "Life on the Edge," the rate of malnutrition of the children in Area C is higher even than that in Gaza, and many kids are not only developmentally stunted, but are dying from related illnesses.

Is Israel responsible for this situation? Yes, because it alone controls the Area C Palestinian population's access to food and its ability to earn a viable living. Is there a "Yes But" that could possibly justify the conditions being imposed on these children? Unless the report is lying, I can't think of one. Even the most wild-eyed extremist can hardly claim that children under the age of seven are terrorists.

There's a traditional china-shop sign: If you break it, you own it. Israel owns this problem, and Israel should fix it. Or does it really want an international campaign in which every doughnut shop in North America features a collection box, a sad-eyed child holding a dead sibling, and a stack of outrage-generating leaflets? Write your congressman: Tie aid to Israel to action on Area C child malnutrition and deaths? Give at church, save an Area C baby? Or how about: On the Day of Atonement, when considering wrongs to other human beings for which you bear some responsibility, start with the children of Area C?

As the peace talks begin again, some Israeli help on behalf of the children of Area C would be a signal that those talks are real, and not just another "Yes But" game.

Sunday October 3, 2010

Dear Readers:

Its interesting to have written a piece that attracts both Zionist trash comments and Anti-Semitic ones. I guess it proves the entrenched views point, which is what my piece is about. As for the notion that the bad condition of the children of Area C is a lie made up by me, or that Israel bears no responsibility for Area C conditions, please see the following, from the STCUK press release of June, 2010.

Save the Children:

Children in West Bank facing worse conditions than in Gaza

Areas of the West Bank under complete Israeli control have plummeted into a humanitarian crisis worse than Gaza, Save the Children warns.

A new report, "Life on the Edge", released today, states that an estimated 40,000 Palestinians living in Area C - the 60% of the West Bank under Israeli control - are unable to make urgent repairs to their sewage systems, schools, homes or hospitals under Israel's strict permit system.

Israel's restrictions on Palestinian access to and development of agricultural land – in an area where almost all families are herders - mean that thousands of children are going hungry and are vulnerable to killer illnesses like diarrhoea and pneumonia.

Conditions for children in Area C have reached a crisis point:

79% of communities surveyed recently in Area C don't have enough nutritious food - this is higher than in blockaded Gaza where the rate is 61%.

84% of families rely on some form of humanitarian assistance to survive.

Rates of stunting in Area C are more than double than in Gaza. More than 15% of children under-5 surveyed were underweight.

An alarming 44% of children in the surveyed area have diarrhoea – the biggest killer of children under-5 in the world.

Salam Kanaan, Save the Children UK's Country Director said: "in the past week, the international community has rightly focused its attention on the suffering of families in Gaza but the plight of children in Area C must not be overlooked.

"Palestinians in the West Bank are widely thought to enjoy a higher standard of living but tragically many families, particularly in Bedouin and herder communities, actually suffer significantly higher levels of malnutrition and poverty."

Across Area C, children are forced to learn in overcrowded, makeshift classrooms without electricity, access to functioning toilets or safe drinking water. Aid agencies are limited in what they can do to help by tight restrictions on building imposed by Israel.

Salam Kanaan said: "Palestinian children cannot wait for the stalled peace talks between the Palestinian Authority, Israel and the United States to find solutions to this crisis. Urgent action must be taken by the Palestinian Authority and the international community to ensure that children have safe homes and proper classrooms, enough food to eat and clean water to drink."

Save the Children works with the most vulnerable children in Area C providing counselling to children whose homes have demolished along with stationary and books for school. The organisation also does urgent repairs to damaged buildings and agricultural land where possible.

Notes to Editors:

Figures in release taken from Life on the Edge (Save the Children report with research funded by the European Commission Humanitarian AID Office, June 2010) and Food Security and Nutrition Survey of Herding Communities in Area C (joint UNRWA/UNICEF/WFP Household Survey, April 2010)

For further information please contact Christine Whitehouse on +44 207 012 6701.
With the exception of public UN sources, reproduction or redistribution of the above text, in whole, part or in any form, requires the prior consent of the original source. The opinions expressed in the documents carried by this site are those of the authors and are not necessarily shared by UN OCHA or ReliefWeb.

If the Israeli government does not totally control Area C, that information should be made available to the world. If the STCUK report is wrong, or if there are other, more accurate statistics, these should also be published. If everything is fine in Area C, the water is great, the food supply is plentiful, and if no young children are being physically and mentally affected by their harsh living conditions, that would be very welcome information. But if STCUK is right, who is responsible? If it is someone other than the Israeli government, that would be helpful to know. But if it is indeed the Israeli government, surely this is a matter that should be given immediate attention by it.

The intent of my article was to locate a problem about which both entrenched sides could agree, thus replacing the prevailing shouting with something resembling a human conversation. Hopefully, both could agree that alleviating the condition of these Area C children is a worthy common goal.


Margaret Atwood



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