The suffering of innocent children should be cause to stop war, not escalate it, says Joseph Kelly

(Trigger warning: contains some graphic description of conflict injuries)

Earlier today (Friday 13th Oct.), the Vatican’s Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin called in to the Embassy of Israel to the Holy See to convey the Catholic Church’s solidarity and spiritual support to Ambassador Raphael Schutz for the tragic attack suffered last Saturday. Speaking shortly afterwards the cardinal voiced his concern for the well-being of the civilian population, both Israeli and Palestinian, especially those in Gaza, amidst the rapidly escalating conflict.

Expressing his sympathy with all the many families affected by the events of the past week, Cardinal Parolin said that despite the pain and anger felt by so many “it is necessary to regain a sense of reason, abandon the blind logic of hatred, and reject violence as a solution.

“It is the right of those who are attacked to defend themselves, but even legitimate defence must respect the parameter of proportionality,” he warned.

Like many, the Vatican line is gradually shifting from calls for a ‘two state solution’ towards an acceptance that there probably isn’t much room for any kind of meaningful dialogue between Israel and the Hamas militia. One only has to look at the menacing developments of the past few hours to see that neither side is minded to back down from positions that will change little in terms of political and geographical realities, but will almost inevitably result in the deaths of many more thousands of people – virtually all of them civilians rather than combatants, and a large proportion of them children.

As in any war you can talk about rights, proportionality and justice, but it’s invariably the children who suffer the most from the breakdown of dialogue. Already in just a week this has become a war about children, with both sides seeking to justify their military actions by citing atrocities allegedly perpetrated by the other side. The images that have emerged on social media – and that have even been presented to the world by some leading political figures – are utterly appalling, but have been impossibly difficult to verify.

Yesterday in Brussels, Israel’s government showed U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NATO defence ministers highly graphic images of a baby riddled with bullets, soldiers beheaded and young people burned alive in their cars or hideaways, saying they were killed by Palestinian Hamas. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office also released on social media a picture of a dead infant in a pool of blood and the charred body of a child, which even the global news agency Reuters was obliged to say felt like “part of an apparent effort to stoke global anger against the Gaza militants over Saturday’s attack.”

On Wednesday, a spokesman for Netanyahu was telling CNN that babies and toddlers had been found by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) with their “heads decapitated” after the Hamas attack but yesterday, in a call with a group of international journalists, Colonel Golan Vach, the head of the IDF’s national search and rescue unit, said that he had “found one baby with his head cut.” For its part Hamas denied any beheadings had taken place.

This may seem trivial when it’s obvious that dreadful civilian massacres have occurred this week, with many children among the dead, but the nervousness of journalists to verify many of the videos, images and statements streaming out of the Israel-Hamas conflict is understandable. Many viral videos and graphic photographs have been dismissed as fakes, mis-contexted or simply not from this present conflict. The reluctance of the main global social media platforms to attempt to fact-check and regulate in any meaningful way what is truth and what is propaganda has not only exacerbated the tensions and bitterness between both protagonists, but the suffering of children in particular has also sucked the wider world into the deep emotions and tensions of this ageing conflict.

So far Israel hasn’t released any firm figures for the number of children killed in the dreadful Hamas attacks of this week, though they say the general death toll has reached 1,300; for its part the Gaza health ministry says that 1,537 Palestinians have died in Israel’s retaliatory bombing of Gaza, with at least 500 of the victims being children.

When any two nations go to war it is the killing of children that is so often invoked by both sides as justification for their continued brutality towards each other. As dreadful as they are, this week’s killings of the young and innocent are sadly just the latest statistics in a decades long conflict between Israel and Hamas where neither side has shown any willingness to abide by even the most basic principles of international humanitarian law.

As early as 1949, in the aftermath of the Second World war, the Geneva Convention recognised a general principle that particular protections needed to be established for the protection of children in times of warfare. However, it took until 1977 for the Convention to codify the rights and protections of children:

Children shall be the object of special respect and shall be protected against any form of indecent assault. The parties to the conflict shall provide them with the care and aid they require, whether because of their age or for any other reason.” Protocol 1, Article 77.

In another universally respected study on children and warfare conducted by UNESCO it is not only the child but its relationship to its surrounding family that takes on special significance in times of conflict. In language that will resonate heavily with any Catholic, the UNESCO report states:

 “When we study the nature of the psychological suffering of the child who is a victim of the war, we discover that it is not the facts of war itself – such as bombings, military operations – which have affected him emotionally; his sense of adventure, his interest for destruction and movement can accommodate itself to the worst dangers, and he is not conscious of his peril if he keeps near him his protector who, in his child’s heart, incarnates security, and if, at the same time, he can clasp in his arms some familiar object.

“It is the repercussion of events on the family affective ties and the separation with his customary framework of life which affect the child, and more than anything the abrupt separation from his mother.”

It’s clearly long been the perspective of international humanitarian law that living through a war acquires relatively little significance for a child so long as its only immediate effects are to disrupt a child’s life, routine and material needs. It’s when conflict breaks up the family unit and primary emotional attachments are severed that real, deep damage is done.

In 2021 alone, the number of countries experiencing armed conflict was the highest in 20 years and according to UNICEF between 2005 and 2022 more than 315,000 grave violations were verified against children, committed by parties to conflict in more than 30 conflict situations across Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America – and the actual total is undoubtedly a lot higher.

In our own lifetimes we have seen barbarous acts against children and families become increasingly common in warfare, and Save the Children estimate that more than 468 million children are currently living in a conflict zone. Increasingly, the new ‘normal’ is making children both frontline targets and one of primary mechanisms for justifying further conflict and ever greater atrocities. No longer is warfare being conducted in remote battlefields in a carefully controlled manner but increasingly across urban cities dense with innocent families.

As if humanity could sink no lower, the events of this week seem to have shown us that unspeakable acts of violence against children are also becoming one of the standard weapons of modern warfare and the dubious propaganda that surrounds it.

Hearing the tragic stories unfold from the Gaza/Israel border one would have thought that both sides might have had the compassion to see that the suffering of innocent children was a reason to call for the end to warfare, not to escalate it. Sadly, compassion seems to be in short supply in certain areas of the Middle East just now.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic publisher and theologian.