Children of the revolution

There is a crisis in Palestinian family life amid the death and devastation in Gaza. But both sides of the conflict accuse their enemies of indifference to the fate of children caught up in the conflict, reports Donald Macintyre
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The Independent Online

No one knows how 12-year-old Mohammed al-Najar came to be killed by an Israeli tank shell. Although his school in the Jabaliya refugee camp was closed by the Israeli incursion, he had left home early. His father, Diab, 32, who was taking a shower when Mohammed slipped out, had repeatedly warned him not to go near the school in a perilous no-man's land between the Israeli tanks and a sandbagged position used by the gunmen. "I didn't know he had gone. "

Diab, dazed with grief, said at the mourning tent for the boy, adding before his voice trailed off: "He just went out. Nobody saw it. He was alone." It took the family till the afternoon to track his body down at Gaza City's Shifa Hospital. Part of his head had been blown off; he was only recognisable because of a burn mark on his left arm left by a kitchen fire two weeks earlier. Some time between 7.30am and noon Mohammed became a statistic, one of at least 10 children under 14 who, even the Israeli army acknowledges, were killed during the 17-day ground incursion into the overcrowded neighbourhoods of northern Gaza which ended at the weekend.

The Israelis sometimes argue that militants use children as human shields; the Palestinians that the Israeli army is too brutal or too undisciplined to worry, in its pursuit of militants, about the deaths of innocent bystanders, however young. Each side, in other words, accuses the other of indifference towards the fate of children caught up in the conflict. On occasions the truth can be more complex - almost as if that indifference is shared by some of the children, like Mohammed himself. One of his schoolfriends, Hamza Khalil, 14, who saw Mohammed as he set out for the school that morning, had confided in another, Mahmoud Abu Sala, 12, that he thought it possible that "Mohammed will not come back". Neither had been at all inclined to go near their UN school.

"I try to keep away from the fighters," said Mahmoud. "I'm too young and I have to leave them to do what they have to do. Of course I am afraid of the bombardments." His parents told him to stay at home, and he listened to them. Older boys frequently came to persuade him to come and see the fighting. Occasionally they would "try to help" the resistance, as spotters or by running errands, or sometimes by throwing stones; at least as often they would just go to watch. But Mahmoud, preferred to stay at home and hear what was happening on the radio. So why did Hamza have a premonition about Mohammed? "He's not afraid; he went with older boys. He would throw stones or just watch. Whenever there is an incursion, he'll be there." He had asked Hamza and Mahmoud to join him. What had he said when they refused? "You're weak." So what would people now think about his death? "People say he is a martyr. But other people will say his father did not take care of him."

Hamza's thoughtful remark goes to the heart of a growing crisis in Palestinian family life as a result of the conflict. For a father to prevent children roaming the streets of this refugee camp of 106,000 people - one of the most overcrowded places on earth - would be difficult in any circumstances, let when the schools are closed, as all those operated by the UN and the Palestinian Authority were in northern Gaza between 9 September and 7 October. "The houses are too small," said Mohammed's uncle, Hussein al-Najar. "They don't want to stay in the house. They have energy; they want to go out to play and they run after the fighters. They are excited by anything abnormal." You can see what he means when the dead boy's contemporaries, crowded into the al-Najar family's little front yard, hear the crackle of gunfire perhaps two blocks away. As they giggle uncontrollably, their bodies become almost rigid with excitement.

But the physical conditions of the camp, with a rubble-strewn dirt patch the only football pitch, are not all parents have to contend with. Samir Qouta, a clinical psychologist with the Gaza Community Mental Health Centre, says: "Children here grow up so quickly. They don't have the normal, adaptive life they would have in America or Europe." But he insists that, contrary to the belief of some Israelis, most Palestinian parents are desperate to prevent young children being sucked into the conflict. The problem is that the traditional Arab view of paternal authority, that the "last word rests with the father or the grandfather, is being broken down by political violence".

A paper to be published next year by Dr Qouta and a colleague points out that in a recent study of 1,000 school-age Palestinians, 547 were found to have suffered at least one "high magnitude traumatic event" in their lifetime. This could be seeing a relative shot, say, or experiencing the shelling or demolition of their house. "Traditionally, children submit to the authority of parents and older members of the family enjoy especial respect," the paper says. "However, the intifada has ... shaken traditional parent-child relations and the family hierarchy... Palestinians have expressed serious concern about the future consequences of these shattered parental bonds. Anecdotally, some believe that children who throw stones ... and fight against the occupation army also challenge their parents' authority. Parents face difficulties in protecting their children from the sights of destruction, violence and abuse."

An earlier study by Dr Qouta of the first intifada showed that 55 per cent of Palestinian children had seen their fathers beaten or belittled at checkpoints or at their homes; in such a context, says psychiatrist Taysir Diab, the centre's medical director, the masked man with the AK-47 at the street corner easily becomes a natural alternative male role model.

Dr Diab says that "one way of coping with feelings [of trauma] is unconsciously to show social affiliation with the community" by showing up in the areas where there is fighting rather than staying at home. A third expert at the Gaza Mental Health Centre, clinical psychologist Mohammed Mukhaimer, cites the example of the mother of a 15-year-old in Khan Yunis, southern Gaza, who came to him complaining that her son went to the border every day to throw stones at the tanks: "We failed. We lost control. We locked him in his room, we sent him to his cousin and then to his grandfather, but still he went."

Mr Mukhaimer added: "When I interviewed this child, he said: 'it is better for me to confront the tanks and maybe hit a soldier than be killed at home like my friend.'" According to Mr Mukhaimer, risk-takers between 12 and 17 have a "fantasy" that sticks or stones can destroy tanks and "imitate" the idea of martyrdom without fully calculating what it means.

The death last week of two other boys in neighbouring Beit Lahiya, in the 9.5km "buffer zone" - established by the Israeli army to prevent the firing of Qassam rockets like those that killed two Israeli children in Sderot two and a half weeks ago - is a case in point, albeit an extreme one. The game that Suleiman Abu Ful, 15, and his nephew, Raed Abu Zeid, 14, were playing amid the rubble of the partly destroyed local sports club was just such "imitation". The boys were putting small shards of aluminium foil into a bottle which they then filled with cleaning fluid; either they shook or threw the bottle and it exploded, splitting in two, or they put in a metal tube which would create a plume of smoke when the bottle exploded.

"They were holding a metal pipe and making Molotov cocktails," explained one of the dead boy's friends Karem Abu Najib, 14.

In this desolate waste land between two large apartment blocks in Beit Lahiya, the surrounding streets empty of residents anxious to avoid the sporadic bursts of gunfire, there was no chance that their makeshift "weapons" could travel more than a few feet, let alone hit the tank that stood in the boys' line of sight, on a hill more than 300m away. But the boys were also spotted by a pilotless drone hovering directly overhead. A missile launched from the air, possibly from the drone itself, killed the boys instantly. "We heard the sound of a big explosion" said Karem. "It hit them and there were pieces of flesh all over the walls. Suleiman's belly was ripped open and his head was blown away. I carried his hand to a car." It may well be that those watching the pictures transmitted back by the drone thought that, as an Israel Defence Force statement said later that day, they had "identified two persons ... trying to launch a Qassam rocket towards Israeli targets from an area which is well known for numerous attempts to launch missiles." But if so, the result seems to have been a tragic error.

But then, it is not as if children are killed only when they wilfully expose themselves to danger. Gaza, particularly its refugee camps, is a dangerous place for children.

Neither the 10-year-old girl fatally wounded as she sat at her desk at her Khan Yunis school on Tuesday, nor another 10-year-old girl who was killed there last month in similar circumstances, nor the two 15-year-old girls in Jabaliya who were respectively killed and critically wounded 10 days ago at home - the one as she baked bread, the other as she swept the floor - nor very many others among the 34 boys and girls under 18 the UN says were killed in northern Gaza since 28 September, not to mention the 2,700 killed in the four years since the Palestinian uprising began, were doing anything untoward when they were shot by Israeli troops.

There is no evidence that Mohammed al-Najar was throwing stones when he was killed, but even if he had been no one would say that death by tank shell was a remotely appropriate response. That would be true even if the social and psychological factors which the Gaza centre identifies as driving some boys towards danger did not arguably make them as much helpless victims of the conflict as those sitting at home.

Whether children become victims because of Israeli ruthlessness as the Palestinians claim, or because the factions deliberately base themselves in built-up residential areas, as the Israelis claim, home is hardly a place of safety. Dr Qouta asked his sample of 944 boys and girls aged 10 to 19 to look at a picture of Fatima, a 15-year-old staring into space, and asked them what problems she might be thinking of - to draw out their own. Sixty-one per cent talked of having seen a friend or neighbour being killed or injured; but when it came to direct personal experience the most frequently cited - after tear-gassing - was "shelling of the home" - mentioned by 19 per cent.

But Dr Qouta also asked his sample another question about the Fatima picture - how would they help her solve the problems? At first sight the answers are truly bleak; nine per cent said they would like to "encourage the peace process" while 25 per cent said they "would like to be a martyr". Yet easily the biggest group, 66 per cent, said they would like "to concentrate on school issues". For Dr Qouta, this suggests that a majority of Gaza children can stay positive, retaining hope despite all the destruction. A Jabaliya resident himself, he cites the example of his own nine-year-old daughter's reaction to the felling of 23 of his olive trees by the Israeli army in the present incursion. "She asked me: 'are you sad?' I said yes. And she said 'you must not be sad. We have to try to plant new trees.'" You can see it, too, in the attitudes of those closest to Mohammed al-Najar. Hamza Khalil, intelligent and articulate, concedes that he may well, in the future, "join the resistance" like his older friend Ala'a, 17, already on the first, weapons training, stage towards life as a militant and, likely, an early death. But it is clear that while already nationalist to his fingertips, he yearns for peace. Asked where he would prefer to live were he not confined to Gaza he says without hesitation: Norway - a country he learnt about before just failing to qualify for a school football tour there. Moreover, he has another kind of dream; loving physics and chemistry, he would like to be a scientist. "I want to serve my country, to help improve it," he says.

Perhaps because he hadn't fully taken in his loss, Mohammed's twin brother, Hussein, was still smiling a lot two days after his brother's death. He seemed almost to thrive on the attention of all those arriving at the mourning tent - and perhaps at his brother's posthumous celebrity. Martyr posters with his brother's face on were put up throughout the neighbourhood. Was he actually glad his brother had become a martyr? For the first time his face froze. In a clear emphatic voice he said a single word. "No."

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