Children become pawns in settlers West Bank battle

JERUSALEM–"It was a scene that I won't soon forget," said the young soldier. "People lying on the ground, little children wailing, and us facing them, standing there with our weapons, waiting for the order to remove them by force."

The past week of mass demonstrations to set up new settlements on barren hilltops in the West Bank and demonstrations halting traffic on Israel's main roads has pitted soldiers against settlers, Jew against Jew, and in between them sit children.

Though the settlers are trying to bring Israel's gradual pullout from the West Bank to a halt, their aims have become clouded by a family fight over their use of children as symbols of resistance and their ties to the land as a Greater Israel.

As armed male and female soldiers dragged settlers off hillsides near such settlements as Efrat and removed them from roadways outside Jerusalem, they had to contend with teenagers, children, even infants.

Typically high-school students are a common sight at the settlers' marches and rallies; in fact, they often make up the body of protesters. But now, day after day, Israelis have been treated to scenes of a different kind: small children, bawling in terror, as they and their parents are led, carried or dragged away by equally distraught soldiers.

In one immortal shot, a woman seated on the ground clasped an infant to breast as two female soldiers tried to cajole her into standing up and being led away. During one of last week's demonstrations, a number of children required infusions for dehydration, after spending hours in the blazing sun. At another, youngsters formed a line to pass stones, used to form a barricade against the advancing troops, while their elders burned tires nearby.

The associations with the Palestinian intifada could not have been more obvious, which was probably what angered government spokesmen most of all.

"Dragging children, who have no grasp of political issues, onto hilltops to pit them against soldiers is an outrage," snapped Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. "Parents have no right to bring children to such events. To confront children with soldiers is scandalous."

Dr. Yitzhak Kadman, chairman of the independent National Council for the Child, is equally emphatic.

"Our position is that it's absolutely unacceptable to bring children to a demonstration of any kind," Kadman said.

"Unfortunately, not only has it become fashionable to involve children in protests, but public-relations advisers encourage people to do so because it `photographs well.' But we regard it as a cynical exploitation of children for adult goals."

Demonstrators see the matter very differently, however.

"Of course we're concerned that things might get rough out there," said Eve Harrow, one of the leaders of the protest by settlers from Efrat.

"But if we don't stop the way things are going, in a few months our kids will be facing Palestinian policemen — and everyone knows how they'll be treated then. Better the trauma of being carried away by a soldier now than facing a catastrophe later."

As youngsters worked around her to prepare another hilltop demonstration site, Efrat protester Tzippi Floresheim said, "Just watching the news is more traumatic for our children than coming out here. People abroad think these demonstrations are over a political disagreement, but we feel that we're headed for a new Holocaust. So the demonstrations are more a catharsis for our children than a trauma. At least they see that we're doing something."

One mother spoke of the educational value of "teaching children to love their land, and that sometimes they must fight for what they love."

But Kadman suspects that the demonstrators bring their children to potentially violent events because their presence has the desired emotional impact, if not on the broader public then at least on the soldiers facing them.

Indeed, before long the debate had spread from the settlers' use of children in demonstrations to the army's use of women soldiers to remove the kids, along with their mothers and female protesters in general.

That controversy was sparked by news clips of female conscripts — who are no more than teenagers themselves — openly weeping as they carried out their tasks.

"Our girls were not drafted into the army for this purpose," a former commander in the Women's Corps argued hotly on the radio.

But Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin soon silenced such complaints by shaming their proponents into consistency. "The feminists demand that women be allowed to be fighter pilots but oppose their being used to evacuate [settlers]," he sneered at a meeting of the Labor Party legislators.

Young women soldiers, it soon transpired, are not the only Israeli army personnel sensitive to hauling off Jewish children.

"When we reached the demonstration site and saw the hundreds of families — children, women, and babies, people tied with handcuffs to stones, buildings, and vehicles — we were shaken," a 19-year-old paratrooper reported in the aftermath of one protest. "I signed up for an elite combat unit and find myself facing a crying little child. We'd rather return to combat duty in Lebanon."

Similar sentiments were voiced by soldiers during the intifada, when they spoke of feeling "humiliated" by having to chase stone-throwing urchins down blind alleys. Policing demonstrators, they argued then (and now), is not a task for which they were drafted or are trained.

Indeed, after a meeting with legal and law-enforcement officials on Sunday of last week, Rabin decided that from now on, only policemen will be used to remove the settlers from their strongholds, while soldiers guard the sites.

Yet the question remains whether protesters, whatever their cause, could make their point just as forcefully without involving children in their struggle.

"Every demonstrator will tell you that he's fighting for the sake of his kids, but that's not the point," said Kadman. "What we need is a wall-to-wall `social contract' that leaves children out of social and political struggles."

Such a pact "is not an attempt to gag protest," he added. "Israelis have every right to air their grievances on the streets and hilltops. But if they're really concerned about their children's welfare, they should leave their kids at home."