This is a speech made by Shannon Pakura on 3rd February 2018 to a rally organised by Wellington Palestine protesting the arrest of Ahed Tamimi and all Palestinian child political prisoners
Kia ora, I’m Shannon Pakura, President of the Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers and I’m here to protest the arrest and detention of Ahed Tamimi and all Palestinian child political prisoners.
The facts are appalling: the Israeli state detains between 500 and 700 children (aged between 12 and 17) each year. They are tried in military courts with a prosecution rate of almost one hundred percent. The vast majority are tried for the crime of throwing stones at heavily armed Israeli Occupation Forces and their military vehicles: a crime that is punishable, depending on circumstances, by up to ten or twenty years in prison. A UNICEF report found that around two thirds of children detained by the Israeli military testified to being violently abused during their arrest and detention, some said they were threatened with sexual assault. Since the year 2000 more than 12,000 children have been detained, and the problem is becoming more acute. The Palestinian child prisoner population has doubled in the last three years.
There are so many negative statistics associated with the violation of children’s rights in Palestine that it can be difficult to absorb them. But, in spite of over 50 years of suffering, the Palestinian people and their children have astonishing strength, resilience and determination to resist and to assert their identity. The Palestine people refuse to allow their land, culture, and way of life to be erased! The fight to hold on to the Palestinian way of living was symbolised by Ahed’s slap of the Israeli soldier occupying her village. This refusal to be subservient to Israeli forces appears to have shaken the Israeli establishment to its core.
Many of us know about Ahed. I’m also here to tell you about a colleague of mine, Munther Amira. Munther is a 48-year old social worker who was arrested and detained by the Israeli security forces on 27th of December for doing exactly what we are doing here today, peacefully protesting the detention of Ahed and other child political prisoners. The only difference between Munther and us, is that Munther is Palestinian and was protesting in Bethlehem just a few days after Ahed’s arrest. In spite of several military court hearings, Munther remains in administrative detention on the charge of participating in an “illegal demonstration”.
Being a social worker is a tough job, especially when working to protect tamariki. Controversial decisions attract public scrutiny and criticism, and that is as it should be. However, in New Zealand, social workers working to protect children are not likely to be harassed, arrested or detained by the police or military authorities. According to the United Nations a human rights defender is a person who, in a peaceful and non-violent way, acts to promote or protect human rights. Munther Amira, is a recognised and highly regarded human rights defender. He is also the former head of the Palestine Union of Social Workers and Psychologists.
Munther works with children and families living in the Aida refugee camp, a camp that has been there since 1950 and is home to over 3,000 Palestinian refugees concentrated into less than one square kilometre of land. The camp is severely overcrowded. Aida is surrounded by the West Bank Barrier, overlooked by military watchtowers. Freedom of movement is seriously restricted by roadblocks and checkpoints. There are regular incursions into the camp by Israeli Security Forces. A recent report by the University of Berkeley gave Aida camp the dubious honour of being the most teargassed place on earth. Researchers say that the use of tear gas by Israeli Security Forces is “widespread and indiscriminate” and that one hundred percent of the population of Aida have experienced it. Not surprisingly, the report highlights that teargas has a disproportionate impact on the psychological and physical wellbeing of children.
We live peacefully here in New Zealand. We go about our daily lives freely and confidently. This is impossible for refugee families and children in Aida. Simply travelling to school is a daily ordeal shaped by checkpoints, roadblocks and the whims of Israeli security forces. Children are exposed to tear gas and sound grenades while playing in the streets, resting in their homes or trying to get to school. A recent report in a British Paediatrics journal estimated that between 25% and 70% of Palestinian children suffer from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. For Palestinian children – in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem – the trauma never stops.
This is the place where our colleague Munther Amira chooses to work, this is the place where he supports families and children, or he did, until he was arrested and detained. Munther’s arrest, and the treatment of Palestinian child prisoners, has provoked an outcry in the international social work community. Calls for Munther’s immediate and unconditional release have been issued by the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) and by national social work associations in Turkey, Britain, Ireland and here in Aotearoa. The international campaign to free Munther is growing rapidly and includes an online change.org petition with over 8,000 signatures from participants worldwide.
Colleagues and friends, our demonstration today is not surrounded by armoured military vehicles. We don’t have heavily armed security forces firing tear gas or sound grenades to force us to disperse. We are not likely to be arrested and detained by our military or police force. Munther Amira was arrested for doing what we in New Zealand can do freely: campaigning for the release of Ahed and for all child political prisoners. We can choose to use our precious freedom to defend those whose freedom is denied.
You might be thinking, what has Palestine got to do with me? Why should New Zealanders be concerned with what’s happening in the Middle East? New Zealanders have a proud history of fighting for what is right, alongside the oppressed of other countries. In the 1980s New Zealanders took to the streets to join the fight against apartheid in South Africa. Today, we need to open our hearts to the plight and cause of the Palestinian people and their children. We need to use our freedom to campaign for theirs. As Nelson Mandela famously said, after winning the long struggle against the South African apartheid regime,
‘We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians’.
New Zealand social workers will continue to lobby and fight for the freedom of Ahed, Munther and all Palestinian child political prisoners.
Image credit: Neil Ballantyne
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