Palestinians pay for fury of the young: Arab children are trapped between the rule of Israeli forces and that of the street, writes Sarah Helm in Gaza City

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The Independent Online
THE GOING rate for a child in Gaza yesterday was 3,000 shekels (pounds 700). Outside Gaza City police station parents queued quietly in the dust, clutching pieces of paper - receipts to show they had paid the bill.

'It is expensive. It is blackmail. But I don't want to leave him in prison,' said Ahmed, who has had no work since Israel closed the occupied territories in March. Last time Hussam, his son, was accused of throwing stones at soldiers, his father got the 'ransom' money back from the Israeli authorities, who refund it if no accusations are made against the child for a year.

'I won't get the money back this time,' he says, wincing. 'I won't be able to keep him off the streets. He is older. He is 16.'

It is tough being a father in the Gaza Strip. The Israeli 'ransom' for a child is supposed to be an incentive for parental discipline. Israelis often accuse Palestinian parents of 'sending their children out to the front line'. Some even claim Palestinian parents are partly responsible for the record child death-toll this year in Gaza and the West bank, where 34 Palestinian children have been killed by Israeli gunfire since January; 12 were under the age of 13. An 18-month-old boy, Fares al-Kaduri, was shot dead in Gaza last week. But between the 'discipline' of the Israeli authorities and 'discipline' of Palestinian shebab - youth leaders - parents have lost all control.

When the 1987 intifada broke out parents, often torn between desire to support the uprising and fear for the safety of their children, tried to hold their children back - only to be damned by the street and sometimes by their own offspring.

Gaza swarms so busily with children that at first you don't notice the parents at all. Some stay indoors. Fouad Afana, whose 13-year-old daughter was shot dead by Israelis in 1988, has rarely left home since. 'I want my children to be martyred for the sake of the Palestinians. I want them to fight,' he says, as his 11-year-old watches.

Other parents just sit anxiously on the sidelines as the battles commence, bailing out the captured, receiving the injured, comparing notes about their offsprings' injuries and arrests, or burying the dead. Mohamed Majid, a municipality officer, says his son was beaten yesterday. He produces a scrap of paper as proof: 'Cut to forehead and swelling. Alleged assault by army.' He adds: 'I paid 500 shekels for him last year.'

Across the road 15 soldiers pile out of two jeeps, and corner a terrified 14-year-old. Conscious of the press, they let him go. A large woman comes out, hysterically beating the youth, as if to say: 'If my son must be punished, I will do it.'

On Nasser Street, cowed figures sit outside the military court. Parents again, hoping to catch sight of their children, should they appear before the military judges. Yussef Arafat, unemployed, has come to catch a glimpse of 14-year-old Hisham. 'They came to the house and just took him away. They said he was the one throwing a stone because he had a yellow T-shirt.'

The discipline of the street is strict and the children have a cause, which seems to give them a self-respect - a strength even - that their parents have lost. Every child is 'affiliated' to a political faction. Basil al-Kaduri, 16, was out throwing stones when the soldiers shot dead his 18-month-old brother, Fares, yards from his home.

'If my father told me to stay at home I would say no,' says Basil, who is studying to be a mechanic. 'He asks me to study, but if there are clashes he doesn't try to stop me. He tells me to be careful.'

Basil says there are dos and don'ts for the clashes. 'Always use your mind. Never throw stones if you don't know the alleyways around to escape. Only go close up to fast moving vehicles, they won't have the chance to shoot. Never shout names or wear the same clothes.'

The teenager says he has no hobbies except talking 'politics'. He has no books except banned literature on 'Israeli interrogation techniques'. In his family's iron-roofed shack there are no toys, no games. Just mattresses on bare concrete floor.

His father, clearly a broken man, listens quietly as the boy says: 'Older people should do more for the intifada for the benefit of Palestine.'

Fares died in his father's arms. They were sheltering from the clashes. 'When the gunshot rang out the baby looked up at me. I hugged him because I thought the noise had scared him. Then I looked down and he had vomited blood.' The military commander for Gaza came round and apologised the next day. 'He said he too had a baby daughter the same age.'

(Photographs omitted)