The phrase "a picture is worth a thousand words" is one of those hackneyed aphorisms whose potency has been diluted through rampant overuse. Yet on occasion, even this most overworked of truisms can directly hit the mark.
Since the current bout of fighting between Israelis and Palestinians erupted over three years ago, many thousands of words have been written to recount the twists and turns of that war. Yet, it was an Associated Press photograph taken during a recent firefight in Gaza that distilled the essence of a central, but oft overlooked, dynamic of this conflict.
The salient figure in this photo is identified by the snapshot's caption as a "masked Hamas militant." This man can be clearly identified as an armed combatant by his camouflage uniform and combat webbing, as well as by the AK-47 assault rifle that he has strapped across his back.
The Hamas fighter is seen in the photograph setting up a rocket launcher. But, the picture also shows a group of Palestinian boys, some of whom are clearly in their early teens, milling around this artillery piece as the Hamas gunman prepares it for firing.
In case one might wonder what these youngsters are doing at the business end of such a deadly weapon, the caption of the photograph clarifies matters: "A masked Hamas militant sets up a makeshift mortar launcher against Israeli forces, unseen, as Palestinian youths try to cover him from the sight of the forces during an incursion in a Gaza city's neighbourhood, Wednesday Feb. 11, 2004."
With its singularly stark image, this picture communicates one of the uglier realities of a war in which Palestinians regularly use their own children as combatants. Yet, debate about this callous tactic of deliberate child-sacrifice is often suppressed by Palestinian spokespeople who address vehement accusations of bigotry against anyone who dares broach the issue.
Palestinian leader Hanan Ashrawi provided a typical example of such rhetorical jiu jitsu when this question was raised during her recent visit to Australia. "That is a racist accusation," declared Ashrawi. "To say that we do not love our children - what a horrible thing to accuse us of!" Horrible, indeed.
But, a more forthright portrayal of the situation was forthcoming from Huda Al-Hussein, a correspondent for the London-based Arabic daily Al Sharq Al Awsat. In November 2000, Al Hussein wrote a scathing piece about the hardhearted manipulation of Palestinian youth by leaders who "consciously issue orders with the purpose of ending their childhood, even if it means their last breath."
In fact, there is ample evidence to conclude that the official resources of the Palestinian Authority are directly used to encourage children to court death on the battlefield. The Palestinian Ministry of Education, for example, issues school books for grades five and six that extol the virtues of "Shahada," the Arabic term for martyrdom. In June 2002, Palestinian Authority TV aired an promotional interview 11-year-old Yussra, who declared, "every Palestinian child aged, say 12, says 'Oh Lord I would like to become a Shahid.'"
Aware that they are unable to defeat Israel militarily, the Palestinians have formulated a plan that is designed to vanquish the Jewish State diplomatically. And, Palestinian leaders realize that a public relations offensive is the key to any such political victory.
The gambit of using children as pawns in front line combat is predicated on a calculus in which cynicism is surpassed only by media savvy. The Palestinians have developed a communications strategy that is predicated on the simple premise that the size of a headline will be inversely proportional to the age of the casualty involved. So, because a dead 13 year old child will attract much more journalistic attention than a dead 33 year old gunman, it is deemed legitimate to sacrifice youngsters on the altar of Israel's demonisation.
This macabre Palestinian publicity scheme is both singularly immoral, and doubly illegal. Article 51 of the Protocols Additional to the Geneva Convention prohibits combatants from using civilians to: " shield military objectives from attacks or to shield, favour or impede military operations."
Moreover, the International Criminal Court considers "conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 years, or using them to participate actively in hostilities in both international and non-international armed conflicts" to be a war crime.
Thus, even if the attacks that deliberately slaughter Israeli civilians are excluded from the equation, Palestinian terrorist organizations, and the Palestinian Authority that tolerates them, are war criminals twice over.
It is long past time to unbind the corset of political correctness that suffocates so much of our public discourse, and to state some self-evident truths. The dominant culture of Palestinian society promotes honour killing as the highest expression of family values, and suicide bombing as the highest expression of national values.
The exploitation of pubescent youths as front line cannon fodder exemplifies a Palestinian cult of death that not only debases the value of human life, but also serves as a primary impediment to peace in the Middle East.
Ted Lapkin is Senior Policy Analyst for the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council