A week ago was when I first saw the picture that appeared in the The Telegraph of children in the Gaza Strip trying to break the Guinness world record for kite-flying. The kites floating mid-air off the Mediterranean shore were a sight to behold. I was taken with the photo and the happiness of the Gazan children on the beach, considering that all the news had been about the sustained Israeli bombardment of that besieged Palestinian territory. At first glance, it seemed like a triumph of the human spirit, or at least of the joy of childhood in the face of war. But then I realized that the picture had been taken at a previous time.
Again, I looked at the photo of all the children grouped on the beach, with the breaking, blue waves in the distance. Flying kites was still quite a feat with an unseen Israeli naval blockade six miles out to sea. However, with the sustained attack on the Gaza Strip, which has been going on since July 7, I realized that it was possible—if not probable—that some of these children were dead.
This U.S.-funded Israeli attack (on a 72-hour ceasefire since Tuesday, August 5) was a rallying point for several Los Angeles-based organizations to organize a march on July 25 to protest the visit of President Barack Obama, who was on a trip to raise money for the Democratic Party and its upcoming election campaigns. But there was another reason for the protest. As that march moved forward down the L.A. streets in the mid-day heat, it was visually dominated by people holding flowing flags from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico. The defense of Palestinian and immigrant children converged, as a response to the similar strategies of dehumanization used to justify violence against them.
The focus of the march was children: Not only the close to 400 Palestinian children killed by Israeli forces since the beginning of July, but also the 60,000 unaccompanied kids who have arrived at the U.S. southern border from Central American countries, often fleeing desperate circumstances, since October 1. And in doing so, these Latin American youngsters have entered into the jaws of the largest border, detention, and deportation regime that we have ever experienced in the United States. This summer official disdain and violence against children—or certain “types” of children—has been on pure, raw display across the globe.
As people marched, these two apparently separate issues joined together in a chant “Emigrantes, Palestinos, Estamos Unidos.” (“Migrants, Palestinians, We Are United”—it rhymes better in Spanish). The demands were not only that the United States stop its $3 billion annual military aid to Israel, but also that it put to a halt its deportation machine, especially with calls to expel many of these Central American children back to situations of certain violence.
Of course, there are huge differences between what is happening in Israel-Palestine and the exodus of children from Central America.
On that same Gazan beach where the children so ecstatically flew their kites, for example, on July 16 an Israeli missile killed four Palestinian children, between the ages of seven and 11, who had been playing on the shore. On July 28, another Israeli rocket obliterated a playground near a hospital in a Gaza refugee camp, killing eight children. “The children were playing and were happy, enjoying Eid, and they got hit. Some lost their heads, others their legs and hands,” an eyewitness told Russia Today. Israel’s military offensive has taken more than 1,900 Palestinian lives. In the last month, 419 Palestinian children have been killed in missile strikes hitting schools, mosques, and hospitals. 64 Israeli soldiers have been killed, mainly in gun battles in Gaza. No Israeli children have been reported dead thus far, though three of its citizens have perished.
For the children of Gaza, there is no place to run to when the Israeli Defense Forces bombs them. “The offensive has had a catastrophic and tragic impact on children,” said Pernille Ironside, head of the UNICEF field office in Gaza, who also mentioned that 2,502 youngsters have also been wounded.
In contrast many of the children from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador are able to run from their own war: A vast, complicated situation that, like in Israel-Palestine, is impacted and fomented by U.S. political, economic, and military policies in the region, both in a historical and contemporary sense.
U.S. media outlets have regularly described the Central American children as a “flood,” “tsunami” or “tidal wave” as if they were some sort of natural disaster. Others use the term “surge” as if the young ones were an advancing military “invasion,” one worthy of deploying the military to protect the “homeland.” This sort of language set the stage for the likes of Fox News host Sean Hannity to sit with Texas Governor Rick Perry, with a camera-friendly machine gun placed between them, as if the kids really did represent the “asymmetric warfare” against the United States as claimed by the ex-Border Patrol agent Zack Taylor.
“If asymmetrical warfare is going to be successful, the first thing that has to be done is to compromise America’s defenses against invasion,” said Taylor.
Taylor’s idea that Border Patrol “babysitting” has taken “the resources that are protecting America at the border, off of the border,” has been repeated across the media landscape and throughout officialdom ad nauseum. Along with this comes the incessant mantra of a “porous” border that, as Taylor describes, gives people “that are trying to get their infrastructure, their personnel, their drugs, their dirty bombs, their biological weapons, their chemical weapons into the United States without being noticed” a free pass. That is why civilian militia groups are roaming the borderlands again. This is one of the main reasons that Perry sent 1,000 Texas National Guard troops to the international divide. Current media and official framing of the border crisis may also explain why the Obama administration (and U.S. Congress) will likely ramp up the border enforcement apparatus even more, and expel the children at a rapid rate from the country.
In other words both the Central American and Palestinian children have been transformed rhetorically into a full-fledged national security threat. This sort of wholesale dehumanization can be found again when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Hamas wants to pile up “telegenically dead Palestinians” for their cause.
Predating the Israeli attack on Gaza Israeli lawmaker Ayelet Shaked stated on her Facebook page that “Palestinian people have declared war on us, and we must respond with war.” In her vividly written post she suggested that the destruction should include “[Palestine’s] elderly and its women, its cities and its villages, its property and its infrastructure.” And at the end she said that women whose families play any part in Palestinian resistance give birth to “little snakes.” It is no wonder Israeli soldiers have no problem posing for photos as they hold a detained Palestinian boy in a chokehold.
Similar were anti-immigrant protestors in Murrieta, California who called the Central American children “wet dogs.” Like in Israel-Palestine, there is example after example of how such words can go from a xenophobic sign in a protest, to the very way agents of the U.S. Border Patrol treat the Central American children in short-term detention. An ACLU report compiled the testimonies of many children, almost all whom complained of freezing conditions in the cells.
B.O., a 14-year-old boy, said he was never able to sleep because Homeland Security agents didn’t turn out the glaring lights. G.G. complained of agents feeding her moldy bread. When her stomach became upset and she asked for medicine Border Patrol told her “it’s not a hospital.” When she vomited, the Homeland Security agents accused her of being pregnant, and called her a “dirty liar.”
K.M. was a 15-year-old girl who said that agents woke her every 30 minutes in the “hielera” (the Spanish word for ice box), the freezing cell where she tried to sleep. She claimed that officials regularly called her and other children “sluts,” “parasites,” and “dogs.”
R.D., a 17-year-old girl, slashed her hand while climbing the fence to get into the United States. She said that in Border Patrol custody an agent squeezed her wound with immense pressure causing her great pain.“It’s good that you are hurt,” the agent told her, “you deserve to be hurt for coming to the US illegally.”
The protestors in Los Angeles were putting this world in dispute, at least in part created by billions of dollars that U.S. taxpayers were giving to Israel and the U.S. border/immigration enforcement apparatus, that dehumanizes children with the same cold efficiency that it deports, or even kills them. Obama, representing the U.S. administration “has the opportunity to help and he’s decided to expedite policies that basically send children to certain deaths,” said Kelly Flores, a teacher at the demonstration. “These are children. It’s our duty to oppose inhumane policies.”
And the Gaza kids did indeed shatter the Guinness world record with their kite-flying in 2011. There, on that joyful day on the beach, indeed was a much better example of what it means to be a child.
Todd Miller has researched and written about U.S.-Mexican border issues for more than 10 years. He has worked on both sides of the border for BorderLinks in Tucson, Arizona, and Witness for Peace in Oaxaca, Mexico. He now writes on border and immigration issues for NACLA Report on the Americas and its blog Border Wars, among other places. His book, Border Patrol Nation Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security, was published by City Light’s Open Media Series in March. You can follow him on twitter @memomiller