The daily realities of living under an illegal military occupation are unimaginable to anyone who hasn’t lived under them. No matter how much one writes, it is impossible to convey the ghastliness, injustice, oppressiveness and inhumanity of being ruled over by a repressive military accountable to no one. The death of Iman Al-Hams, however, may provide an illustrative anecdote.
On the morning of the 5th of October, 2004, a morning as rudimentarily awful as any lived under a brutal occupation, 13-year-old Iman, wearing her blue and white school uniform and carrying her schoolbag, left her house in Rafah refugee camp to go to school. Iman wandered a few meters away from her usual route to school and ventured into the large security zone surrounding an Israeli military base, which is, as is common, located near Palestinian civilians’ houses and schools. What follows is a gruesome tale of sickeningly cold-blooded murder.
Iman was spotted by the Israeli military base’s watchtower. She was about 100 yards away from the military base when the following conversation took place between a soldier in the watchtower, an army operations room and a certain Captain R, who remains unnamed to this day:
From the watchtower: “It’s a little girl. She’s running defensively eastward.”
From the operations room: “Are we talking about a girl under the age of 10?”
Watchtower: “A girl about 10, she’s behind the embankment, scared to death.”
A few minutes later, Iman is shot from one of the army posts
Watchtower: “I think that one of the positions took her out.”
Captain R: “I and another soldier … are going in a little nearer, forward, to confirm the kill … Receive a situation report. We fired and killed her … I also confirmed the kill. Over.”
Captain R—along with another soldier—walks towards Iman, and shoots two bullets at point-blank range into her head to “confirm the kill.” He starts to head back to his base, before turning around again and emptying all the bullets from his machine gun into the body of Iman.
Captain R then “clarifies” why he killed Iman: “This is commander. Anything that’s mobile, that moves in the zone, even if it’s a three-year-old, needs to be killed. Over.”
After she was taken to the hospital, doctors counted 17 bullet wounds in Iman’s body, and three in her head, though they were unsure of the exact number since her little body was shattered to the point where one couldn’t accurately count how many bullets had riddled it.
Anywhere in the world, you would expect such a murderer to be tried and to receive a very harsh sentence. Unfortunately, the laws that apply in most of the world do not apply to Palestinian children and their murderers. An Israeli military court, on October 15, 2004, cleared the soldier of any wrongdoing or unethical behavior, declaring that “confirming the kill” is standard procedure.
A few of the soldiers serving with Captian R seem to have not been satisfied. They were apparently motivated by racist animosity towards him (he is Druze, they are Jewish), and took the matter to a Military Police court. He was charged not with the murder of Iman, but with “illegal use of his weapon, conduct unbecoming an officer and perverting the course of justice.” He was cleared on all counts.
To add insult to fatal and gruesome injury, Captain R was then compensated with 80,000 Israeli Sheckels (around US$20,000) plus legal fees for the inconvenience of being taken to court over a triviality such as the life of a Palestinian child. The court also criticized the Military Police for investigating the case in the first place. Captain R was then promoted to the rank of Major, and continues to serve in the Israeli Army, where he may well have murdered other children in the past three years.
This is by no means an isolated incident or a freak failing of the “justice” system, but rather one example of many such stories that will shock anyone with an ounce of conscience or humanity in them. One could write whole books with the stories of children like Iman, killed in callous cold blood, whose murderers faced no repercussions whatsoever for their crimes. Since 2000, almost 1,000 Palestinian children have been murdered by the Israeli Army, and countless other thousands injured. Not a single Israeli soldier has faced any form of punishment, demotion, or even reprimand over any of these murders.
As The Guardian’s Chris McGreal put it back in June 2005:
B’Tselem argues that a lack of accountability and rules of engagement that “encourage a trigger-happy attitude among soldiers” have created a “culture of impunity” – a view backed by the New York-based Human Rights Watch, which last week described many army investigations of civilian killings as a “sham … that encourages soldiers to think they can literally get away with murder”.
In southern Gaza, the killings take place in a climate that amounts to a form of terror against the population. Random fire into Rafah and Khan Yunis has claimed hundreds of lives, including five children shot as they sat at their school desks. Many others have died when the snipers must have known who was in their sights – children playing football, sitting outside home, walking back from school. Almost always “investigations” amount to asking the soldier who pulled the trigger what happened – often they claim there was a gun battle when there was none – and presenting it as fact.
The tragedy of these stories is not just that these lives of innocent children have been lost, but that the Israeli Army, backed by the government, has made it entirely clear that all Palestinians are fair game to their soldiers. Had Iman’s murder been an isolated incident whose perpetrator was punished, one could argue that the Israeli army was not complicit in it. But by acquitting the proudly self-confessed murderer, along with hundreds of his likes, the army is sending a clear message to anyone who would listen that it is an institution that finds child-murder acceptable.
This is illustrative of the real injustice and tragedy of the occupation. Callow 18-year-olds, drunk on their power, sit behind some of the most sophisticated murder machinery in the world and unleash it on a civilian population. Their trigger-happy guns are the only judge, jury and executioner around. There are no moral imperatives, no accountability, and not even any incentive to attempt to minimize damage to civilians. The lives of those surrounding this murder machinery are dispensable.
This is why it is imperative that the occupation end. It is a fundamental right of the Palestinian people, like any other people, not to have their children murdered with impunity by an occupying army. Only when this happens can there be any prospect for peace. Ending the occupation is not conditioned on what the Palestinians do or how they behave, or whether they resist the occupation or not; it is a fundamental right for Palestinians, on a par with the right not to be enslaved.
Under occupation, every child, woman and man is collateral damage waiting to happen. Three years ago it was Iman’s turn. If the world lets the madness of this occupation continue, we will witness a new Iman Al-Hams every day, and our silence will make us complicit in her murder as well.