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When children are 'terrorists', Israel's story rings hollow

Accusations of terrorism have often been used as an excuse to dehumanise Palestinians.

It's one of the 20th century's most celebrated images of individual courage. Very few people are unfamiliar with the photograph of the lone Chinese protester facing down a line of army tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Despite his anonymity, "Tank Man" or the "Unknown Rebel", as he came to be known, is a lasting symbol of that student rebellion that was so brutally crushed.

But it's safe to say that most people have probably never heard of Fares Odeh. On October 29, 2000, with the Al Aqsa intifada in its second month, a journalist from The Associated Press snapped a photograph of a 14-year-old Palestinian boy throwing a rock at an Israeli tank near the border crossing of Karni in Gaza.

It was a strikingly similar image to that of "Tank Man": one individual standing up to the brute force of mechanised armour. And yet, while that image from Beijing haunts the popular consciousness, this 14-year-old boy is almost forgotten.

The photo had a tragic postscript: 10 days after it was taken, Fares was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier.

A reminder about the lives of Palestinian children came earlier this week when a school bus in Jerusalem was hit by a truck, killing five Palestinian children and one adult, as well as injuring about 40 others. As the news broke, some of Israel's online communities, even Benjamin Netanyahu's Facebook page, were inundated with messages of unrestrained glee.

One poster allayed Israeli fears: "Calm down, Its a bus with Palestinian children, lets pray there will be deaths, or at least severe injuries, this is great news to start the day with." Others said: "its seems like they are Palestinian children.. Thank God"; " Thank God its Palestinians, let it be such bus every day"; "Great less terrorists!!!!" There were others, as well as many "likes" of these posts.

Other Israelis posted that they were ashamed of their countrymen, but the hate speech does fit a pattern. The message was clear: all Palestinians, including children, are terrorists. This notion has been so indoctrinated into Israeli society, not to mention propagated to the outside world, that practically any Palestinian issue can be viewed through the prism of "terrorism".

Fares, for example, was fair game: surely, he would have grown up to be a "terrorist". Another casualty of the second Intifada, 12-year-old Muhammad Al Durrah, was killed by an Israeli sniper while taking cover with his father. Although a video clip from France 2 TV channel showed Muhammad crying as he died, cradled in his father's lap, Israeli officials have always cast doubts on its authenticity. Far more likely, they claim, is that Palestinian militants killed him, or the incident was staged. By this reckoning, "terrorism" is more important to Palestinians than children's lives.

There have been other cases, and not just involving Palestinians.

In March 2003, American activist Rachel Corrie, a member of International Solidarity Movement was crushed by an IDF bulldozer as she attempted to stop the demolition of a Palestinian home in Gaza. Eyewitnesses said she was on her knees when she was mowed down. The Israeli army maintains that Corrie, who was wearing a fluorescent vest and was waving her arms, could not be seen from the bulldozer.

Not surprisingly, her actions were denounced by many Israelis and right-wing Americans as "stupid" and, as ever, aiding terrorism.

Just how many people have to be wrong for Israel to be right? The answer is, the Israeli government does not care, not as long as resistance against the occupying forces continues to be defined as "terrorism". Just like the dictators facing Arab uprisings across the region, Israel is far more at ease dealing with violence, or terrorism, than peaceful protests.

Which makes the case of Khader Adnan a landmark. If children and peace activists can be systematically dehumanised, then what hope was there for the Islamic Jihad spokesman who has been detained under the administrative arrest order since December?

And yet Mr Adnan's case showed the extraordinary power, not of "terrorism", but of non-violent resistance. After 66 days of a hunger strike protesting his detention in harsh conditions, and a sustained Twitter campaign to release him, Israel yesterday agreed to free Mr Adnan, albeit in two months. (It was a tacit acknowledgement that there was no evidence against him.)

In our pages yesterday, the columnist Joseph Dana wrote that the hunger strike could be Palestine's "Tahrir moment", the non-violent protest that many have called on Palestinians to take up. Suddenly, even a member of Islamic Jihad had to be viewed as a human, not a "terrorist".

"'Terrorism' is what we call the violence of the weak, and we condemn it," American writer Sydney J Harris stated in his 1986 book Clearing the Ground. "'War' is what we call the violence of the strong and we glorify it."

This has been the story between the Israelis and the Palestinians for more than 60 years. But it is a lie. Fares was a boy who had the courage to throw a rock at a tank. He should be remembered as such.



Follow on Twitter: AliKhaled_

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