Incarcerated Childhood and the Politics of Unchilding

Incarcerated Childhood and the Politics of Unchilding
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Published Date : 01 September 2019
ISBN-13: 978-1108429870

Review by:

Omar Ahmed

Whilst literature on Israel’s state violence against Palestinian children is nothing new, there are apparent limitations on the current discourse which tends not to extend beyond theories of childhood trauma in conflict zones; nor do they form part of a critique of the ideologies underpinning Israel as a settler-colonial state. More often than not, the violent and personal experiences of the children themselves are overlooked within existing frameworks. 

It is through the framing of the settler-colonial invasion of Palestinian childhood itself in Incarcerated Childhood and the Politics of Unchilding that author Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian attempts to construct and examine the idea of Palestinian children as political capital by presenting the concept of what she describes as “unchilding”. 

According to Shalhoub-Kevorkian, this is the outcome of racialised, gendered and colonial policies in addition to “securitised theology” which attacks the children’s bodies, lives and futures physically and symbolically through the use of force. It is through the politics of unchilding that Israel manages to reinvent and re-territorialise itself while dispossessing the Palestinians and their disrupting family structure. Unchilding and the targeting of Palestinian children is facilitated by the settler-colonial state, it is argued, from two ideologies: one treats the children and their families as inferior and in need of “civilising” by the benevolent state trying to save the “native” children from their own communities; the other refuses to acknowledge them as children, seeing them instead as a demonised and dehumanised Other — “born terrorists”. 

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In exploring these ideas, the author — who is a social worker and criminologist — relies on her observations and conversations with Palestinian children and the narratives of the elderly who survived and still remember the trauma of the 1948 Nakba (Catastrophe). Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s analysis is also shaped by her own childhood experiences as a descendent of Nakba survivors, as well as survivors of the Armenian Genocide (1914-1923). Unchilding, therefore, is both a historical issue and an ongoing process. 

The book is well-referenced and includes scholarly citations on Israel as a settler-colonial state and other such projects and their treatment of native children — Australia, Canada and the US, for example — wherein children “were and are subjected to physical, sexual and emotional violence”. As Shalhoub-Kevorkian points out, scholars have only recently begun to address violence against children through the lens of political enquiry, thus it is unsurprising that there is yet to be more research on Israeli policies against Palestinian children.

The reader comes to realise that Israel fails to see Palestinian children as children, or even adults, with legal rights. Instead they are perceived as potential terrorists who must be securitised, which is not too dissimilar to the treatment of native populations by other settler-colonial projects, with legally authorised state violence against an indigenous group deemed to be beyond saving. 

Harrowing testimonials and the voices of those who experienced the violent upheaval of the Nakba, specifically in Lydda (an Arab town which witnessed a massacre and mass expulsions without regard for age, and the establishment of fenced areas called the Arab Ghetto) are provided. The broad concept of “caging” is mentioned, which goes beyond mere imprisonment and is not limited to the merely physical. In one account following the notorious Operation Dani targeting Lydda and Ramle in July 1948, we are told how children living in the cordoned off ghetto were “silenced” by the horrors that they witnessed: “They changed, as if they have become adults in one day.” 

Contemporary examples are also invoked in present-day Hebron, in the occupied West Bank, where Palestinian children are essentially prisoners in their own homes, with their parents as their wardens and where home ceases to be home. The tensions not only disrupt their education and social well-being, but also strips the children of their homes, and their parents of their parenting capacities. This has the effect of dismembering the family home. The brutality meted out to Palestinian children in 1948 Lydda is arguably being reproduced and continued today by the state of Israel. 

Parallels with North America and Australia are also made with gendered, racial violence against native populations, which is embedded within settler-colonialism. Of all children, young girls are the most affected by the intrusive character of Israel’s racial violence, with sexual abuse remaining a constant threat against women and children. One documented, harrowing incident is highlighted in the abduction, gang-rape and murder of a young Bedouin girl that took place shortly after the Nakba. In fact, Bedouin children to this day are the most deprived and vulnerable of disadvantaged populations in Israel. 

No book on this subject would be complete without mentioning the Gaza Strip which is, in effect, a caged enclosure micromanaged by Israel; an entire chapter focuses on the situation of children in the besieged territory. The horrific murder of the four Bakr boys on a beach in Gaza in 2014 is also discussed, along with the denial of accountability for their murder, which only serves to confirm their “de-authorisation as murdered children”. 

Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s book is an original take on the idea of unchilding as an assault on Palestinian children and childhood and makes for a sobering read. However, there is also a sense of hope to be taken from the maturity and defiance in many of the children’s testimonials; children exist, resist and persist we are told. It is for this reason that the settler-colonial state perceives Palestinian children and national reproduction rates to be a threat to its existence, given that they are key components of future resistance to Israel’s brutal military occupation. 

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