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As
Palestinian Child Day is celebrated on 5 April, Omsiyat Kamal ‘Awaja (15) is
one of many Palestinian children for whom the day, like every other, will be
marked by unbearable loss and suffering. It is impossible to count the number
of children in the Gaza Strip who have been directly affected by loss. Since
the outbreak of al-Aqsa Intifada on 28 September 2000, PCHR has documented the
killing of 958 Palestinian children and injury of 6,355 others in the Gaza
Strip. 313 children were killed during ‘Operation Cast Lead’ (2008-9), and a
further 35 children were killed during ‘Operation Pillar of Defence’ in
November 2012. PCHR has also documented the tragic consequences on thousands of
children of the destruction of their homes, denying them the right to shelter.

A small, mud
house with a small yard in the front, piles of pots and kitchen utensils
scattered here and there, a number of books leaning against the wall of the
house, which barely shelters its residents. That is what the house in which
Omsiyat currently lives looks like. The house was built by UNRWA as a temporary
alternative for the ‘Awaja family home, which was destroyed by Israeli forces in
2009 during ‘Operation Cast Lead’.


“Before
moving to the house that you are seeing now, we lived in a tent for around two
years. During that time, we realised exactly what it feels like to be a
displaced person with no home. We did not get used to living in a tent. It took
us a long time to adjust, as we used to live in a big house with most of the
things we needed.”


On 4 January
2009, Israeli forces destroyed the ‘Awaja building in Beit Lahia without any
prior warning. The residents fled to a neighbouring tract of land when Israeli
bulldozers began to destroy their home. After the house had been destroyed, the
children’s mother, Wafaa’ (36), went back to collect what could be salvaged
from under the rubble. She was accompanied by three of her children, Diaa,
Sobhi, and Ibrahim, each of whom was younger than 13 years of age.


Omsiyat
recalls: “My brother, Ibrahim, was the first to be injured, sustaining injuries
in his waist. Mom screamed out, so Dad went to check on her, and picked up my
brother. They left the house, or what remained of it, and Dad was screaming,
‘My son is injured. We need an ambulance.’ The Israeli soldiers were still in
the area. They answered his screams with laughter and then shot more bullets,
so that Dad was injured, as well as my mother. My father was left lying on the
street and Ibrahim was lying next to him. My mother crawled until she reached
my siblings and me where we were hiding behind a wall. We saw the Israeli
soldiers approaching and shooting at Ibrahim, and Dad told us later that he had
died.”

 

 

 

More than
four years later, Omsiyat is still torn apart by regret. Though very young, she
feels guilty about the death of her brother because she failed to help him.
“When my Dad, Mom, and Ibrahim were injured, I stood there, unable to do
anything, though I am the oldest of my siblings. I cannot forget what happened
and I feel so much pain whenever I remember that I did not try to help. The
idea that my help might have done something, in some way or another, to rescue
my brother never leaves my mind, and it causes my stomach to ache. Maybe if I
had tried to pull Ibrahim away from the Israeli crossfire, he would still be
alive.”


Omsiyat was
severely affected by the suffering that she and her family went through. Her
father, Kamal (51), says, “Omsiyat suffered so much after the death of her
brother and the destruction of our house. It took us a long time to settle into
our new life in the tent, and then in the mud house, as neither could compare
to the house we used to live in and what I used to provide for my children. My
child was executed, my house was destroyed, and I turned from being a father
who provided the best he could for his family to a father who is incapable even
of providing a suitable house for his family. Days pass by meaninglessly. This
how we all feel. Even psychotherapy sessions could not help us to get over
this. My wife, children, and I share an indescribable feeling of oppression.”


Omsiyat
describes how her father, Kamal (51), tried his best to create a nice environment
for his children to live in: “Dad installed an internet line in the tent and
bought us a computer. He also replaced most of the electronic devices we used
to have in our house, but unfortunately he could not build a new house because
he did not have enough money. UNRWA built us this temporary house and told my
Dad recently that they are planning to demolish it to build a new permanent
house. We are preparing to go back to living in a tent.”


The family
will live in a tent again until UNRWA finishes building the permanent house.
“Although I know from experience how harsh it is to live in tents, the idea of
going back to the tent does not worry me. In comparison to what we have been
through, tents seem luxurious.”


Omsiyat used
to love drawing landscapes, but today she only draws scenes of death and
destruction. “I can see no beauty around me and I am no good at drawing
anything but warplanes, tanks, and funerals. I used to love drawing landscapes.
All I drew in my paintings were flowers, butterflies, and trees. Now, when I
intend to draw a flower, I automatically draw a tank, a tent, or a destroyed
house.”


Omsiyat’s
story is included in a report that PCHR has recently published, ‘The Best is
Yet to Come’,
along with the accounts of 14 more children in the Gaza Strip who
have experienced bereavement, injury, the injury of a loved one, the
destruction of a home, or long-term separation from a father who is in prison.
The report was funded by UNICEF.


Palestinian
children are a particularly vulnerable group and are among those most affected by
Israeli forces’ violations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which have been
ongoing since 1967. International humanitarian law (IHL) grants children two
forms of protection: first, the general protection granted to them as
non-combatant individuals; second, special protection as they are considered to
be a particularly vulnerable group in times of war and armed conflict.[1]


Under the
principle of distinction, parties to a conflict must, at all times, distinguish
between civilians and combatants, and civilian objects and military targets.
Violations of this principle constitute war crimes, as defined in, inter alia,
Articles 8(2)(b)(i), and (ii) of the Statute of the International Criminal
Court.[2] Depending on the
scale of such attacks, and whether they form part of a plan or policy, such
attacks may also constitute the crime of wilful killing and be a grave breach
of the Geneva Conventions.[3]


In addition,
IHL requires that any attack must be
proportionate. An attack which may
be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians,
damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive
in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.[4]
Furthermore, under the principle of precaution,
customary IHL requires that all feasible precautions
must be taken to avoid, or at least to minimise, incidental loss of civilian
life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects.[5]



[1]
Special
requirements for the treatment of children in times of armed conflict are
outlined in the Fourth Geneva Convention Relating to the Protection of Civilian
Persons in Times of War, Articles 14, 17, 23, 24, 38, 50, 82, 89, 94, and 132;
Additional Protocol I to the Fourth Geneva Convention Relating to the Protection of
Civilian Persons in Times of War, Article 77.

[2] UN General Assembly, Rome Statute of
the International Criminal Court (last amended 2010), 17 July 1998,
Articles
8(2)(b)(i), and (ii).
 

[3] Fourth Geneva Convention Relating to the Protection of Civilian
Persons in Times of War, Article
146.

Additional Protocol I to the Fourth Geneva Convention Relating to the Protection of
Civilian Persons in Times of War, Articles 51(5)(b)[4]

[5] Additional
Protocol I to the Fourth Geneva Convention Relating
to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Times of War, Article 57.