Children are the first to die

There is a particular historical pattern of colonial settler genocide that links Africa to Palestine.

Children breaking a Guinness World Record for kite flying in Northern Gaza, 2011. Image credit Shareef Sarhan for UN Photo via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Deed.

In December 2023 doctors in Gaza were already warning that Israel was destroying the necessary conditions for life and that even if the bombing stopped, the dying would continue. If you block access to food, clean water, shelter, sanitation, fuel, medicine, and medical care, disease will do the rest, and children are the first to die. The previous fifteen years of blockade by Israel had already seriously weakened Gaza. Now after six months of all-out war we can see the effects of fast genocide by bombing along with the slow genocide created by destroying the system of social reproduction. 

Under world pressure, Israel may implement a ceasefire, but that will not end the dying. There have, of course, historically been many massacres and genocides in Africa, but there is a particular historical pattern of settler-colonial genocide that links Africa to Palestine. What is under attack by Israel is the whole system of social reproduction, from denial of access to basic needs to attacks on all the work that mostly women do—feeding, caring for, and reproducing the labor force. We don’t see that work in the daily images from Gaza, which tend to focus on men taking risks to get food aid packages and on starving children. But this system is being attacked, just as it has been throughout settler colonialism, with lasting effects. There is the bombing and the shooting that kills more quickly, and then the slow genocide of starvation and disease. And the killing of children is a basic part of that slow genocide.

From the British massacre at Drogheda, Ireland, in 1649 comes the essential settler-colonial line about killing children, “Nits become lice”—a justification made throughout the history of settler colonialism, including notoriously against Native Americans in North America. In Africa, from Algeria to South Africa, colonial powers have acted directly to control and destroy social reproduction and block the crucial support it provided for liberation movements—from destroying existing villages and then confining surviving women and children and the elderly to “guarded settlements” or barren “homelands,” to enclosing, bombing and controlling “native” areas. All these strategies led to a wholly predictable pattern of disease and death, starting with children. All are now being used in Palestine.

In the 1899–1902 Boer War, the British burned Boer farms and imprisoned Boer women and children and the Africans working for them in guarded camps, to destroy the social reproduction system that supported Boer forces. Thousands, especially children, died. In Kenya in the 1950s, the British attempted to block food provision to the Mau Mau fighters in the forests of Mount Kenya, who were under bombardment by British planes. Kikuyu women and children living in native reserves on the slopes of the mountain were forced into “strategic villages” surrounded by barbed wire, with towers with armed guards. Malnutrition and disease claimed tens of thousands of lives, especially those of children.

In Cameroon in the late 1950s the Union of the Peoples of Cameroon (UPC) went into forest villages as opposition parties were suppressed. The French responded by setting up guarded settlements along roads for easier surveillance, with the expected weakening of social reproduction, and if that didn’t work, they sent bombs. 

Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film The Battle of Algiers and Franz Fanon’s work have made the urban guerrilla struggle in Algeria famous. But a long counterinsurgency attack in the countryside—the first locus of the anticolonial struggle—preceded that battle. The French destroyed rural villages with aerial gunfire and napalm, rounded up thousands of peasants at gunpoint, and “relocated” them into guarded settlements, called camps de regroupement. The mountain areas were then declared forbidden zones and the French army shot or bombed anything that moved inside them. By the end of the Algerian War in 1962, some 2.3 million people, mostly women, children, and the elderly, were in camps de regroupement, where malnutrition and disease took a great toll. In Algiers, the Casbah became a guarded settlement within which Algerians were bombed, assassinated, rounded up, and taken away to be tortured and guillotined.

In Madagascar, responding to the 1948 anticolonial uprising, the French just cut to genocide: burning villages and fields with napalm, killing domestic animals, using mass arrests, torture, and executions. Madagascar estimates put the Malagasy dead at more than 100,000—nearly 2 percent of the population, including much of a generation of educated women and men.

In Namibia full-out genocide was committed between 1904 and 1907, targeting the Herero and Nama people, who refused to give up their land. About 65,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama were shot or driven into the desert, the few thousand who survived were imprisoned in concentration camps to die, their skulls sent to Germany for eugenics research. 

Finally, South Africa, so well equipped to recognize both apartheid and genocide and make the case against Israel at the International Court of Justice, had its own experience of camps for dying. From 1948, the apartheid project intensified racial separation. “Removals” forced millions of Africans who were not considered useful in the South African economy, which meant particularly women and children and the aged, into the barren “reserves,” where Africans knew you were sent to die—a strategy inspired by the reservations where white American settlers sent Native Americans to die. 

In all these cases, a colonial demand for land leads to the starvation and outright killing or removal of the colonized (or, at least, the “surplus”), and this pattern is repeated in Israeli actions, from the Nakba—the Catastrophe—of 1948 to today’s onslaught in Gaza and the increasing takeover of the West Bank.

Algerian and South African liberation movements won despite facing overwhelming colonial military force not by winning armed struggles but through internationalist support. French support for Algeria’s settler colonizers was weakened by leaked reports to Le Figaro about the deaths of children in the camps de regroupement, and seriously shifted as left opposition revealed the brutality of the French army in urban as well as rural Algeria. In 1961 metropolitan France voted overwhelmingly for Algerian independence. As the Algerians put it, “We lost the war, but we won our independence!” (Pontecorvo, The Battle of Algiers)—a strong lesson about strategy: you may not win the military fight, but by getting enough of the world on your side you may still win the political war.

The African National Congress faced the same problem and finally ended apartheid by joining its long internal struggle—above- and underground—to a strong international campaign. The illegally shot 1974 film The Last Grave at Dimbaza revealed the dehumanizing violence of apartheid, and the later televising of township violence helped boost the international movement that eventually brought down the South African regime. Now we have daily videos of the destruction of life in Gaza, undeniable in real time to the many international critics of Israeli actions—and clearly undeniable to the majority of US voters who now oppose Israel’s actions. What those daily reports show is that Israel is continuing its destruction of the system of social reproduction—-and that the dying won’t stop when the bombing stops. Neither will the suffering of the children. So this time we need a militant international campaign not only to end Israel’s war on Palestine but also to end the continuing dying and heal the children.

Further Reading