After a gap of 20 months, fresh peace talks were held between Israel and the Palestinians last month. But since the end of September, a stalemate has existed between the two sides and talks have not resumed. The Israelis have offered to extend a freeze on settlement building, the major stumbling block to resumption of the talks, if the Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish state”. The Palestinians argue that they already recognize the “state of Israel” and acknowledging Israel as a specifically Jewish nation would undermine the Palestinian community, which accounts for over 20% of the Israeli population.
As the two sides argue, ordinary citizens continue to be caught in the crossfire between the two sides, many of them children. In the Palestinian Autonomous Area of Gaza, at least 10 children have been shot and wounded over the last three months along the Israel-Gaza border, according to Defence for Children International (DCI). DCI have been documenting cases of children (aged between 13 and 17) injured by soldiers in this period. 9 of the children were shot in a leg or arm and 1 in the stomach on land between 50 to 800 metres from the border.
A “buffer zone” has been set up by Israel along Gaza’s border as an extra protection against sniper and mortar attacks. It is meant to provide a ‘no-go’ area extending 300 metres beyond the boundary. However, to many locals it is unclear how far the buffer zone exists. Some have been shot while inside or near to the ‘no-go’ area and in the past three months, five people have been killed. In one tragic case, a 91-year old farmer and two teenagers were killed by a mortar attack while tending to goats near the official buffer zone. Some farmers are being forced to abandon land for fear of coming under fire by soldiers.
The UN and other agencies are concerned that without warning, some parts of the zone may have been extended up to 1 kilometre from the boundary fence. This is putting children in grave danger, because many youngsters ignore warning shots fired by soldiers. Mohammed Sobboh is 17 and was shot just above the knee in August when he and his brother were collecting rubble 800 metres from the border. Mohammed’s family of 12 rely on the collection of debris from former settlements and demolished buildings for an income. Mohammed and his brother earn 30-40 shekels (8–11 dollars) per day selling rubble for construction material, in high demand since the Israeli embargo.
Human rights groups in the region have criticized the Israeli government for allowing soldiers to shoot at civilians collecting rubble or trying to farm land or harvest crops such as olives. The UN believes that the current situation is having an adverse impact on the price of food in Gaza. Around 30% of agricultural land lies within 300 metres of the border, which is 50 kilometres in length. By limiting access to this land, food supplies are under pressure. In Gaza, tomatoes used to cost 1 or 2 shekels per kilo, but now cost 10.
In an attempt to find some solution to restarting the peace talks, the Palestinians have asked for a map to be drawn up where Israel sees its final borders. But right now, clarity is needed over the land along the existing borders. Otherwise more civilians and children will be injured or killed in Gaza.