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Rights & Wrongs: A grim future for children of the intifada

HALIMA is four, and lives with her 22-year-old mother and her grandparents in a refugee camp on the West Bank. Her parents are divorced; of the three uncles living with them, one is in prison and another in hiding. Born as the intifada began, she has seen her home raided repeatedly by the army, her mother beaten up and her grandparents sprayed in the eyes with gas from hand-held canisters. She was in the house when soldiers threw two of these tear gas canisters through a window; now she has throat infections.

The trauma suffered by the 800,000 Palestinian children - half of whom are under 15 - growing up on the West Bank and Gaza Strip has been the subject of numerous reports in recent years. The picture they all paint is grim. The daily round of violence, confrontation and collective punishment has led to behavioural problems as well as high rates of anxiety and depression. Teenagers despise parents who are too servile to the authorities and small children have recurrent nightmares. For most of these children, the intifada, in which they have become both the heroes and the victims of suppression, has become a way of life. Many grow up welcoming the idea of martyrdom.

Less widely known are the more seemingly prosaic educational, health and material hardships inflicted on the Palestinian children, who have seen a severe deterioration in their standards of living, aggravated by the Gulf war. Income has dropped by 40 to 50 per cent in the past four years.

A report, Growing Up with Conflict, published by the Save the Children Fund this week, describes the children as losing half their school days due to repeated curfews and school closures. The report speaks of classes with more than 50 pupils and of a 'skills bottleneck' because most students are three or four grades behind. Overcrowded conditions at home and inadequate water and sanitation services have taken a dire toll on their health. While diphtheria, tetanus and polio have been eliminated, epidemics of measles and brucellosis are common. Acute respiratory infections and diarrhoeal diseases account for more than half of child deaths.

Of the 1,049 Palestinians killed during the intifada by the Israeli security forces, almost a quarter have been children under 16. Maltreatment and even torture of Palestinian children who are detained is frequently reported. The SCF report estimates that between 15,000 and 20,000 children have disabilities, many of them caused by injuries.

The fragmentation of various services is of serious concern to the agencies working on the West Bank. Time and many resources are wasted because of lack of coordination. All await anxiously the outcome of the peace talks.

Only if the violence stops and the Palestinians are allowed to take control of their own services, do they see any reasonable future for the children.

Even so, few are optimistic. Facing displacement, occupation, harsh suppression by the Israeli authorities and the repercussions of the Gulf war, the SCF report concludes that 'conditions for children have deteriorated rapidly and are likely to continue to do so'.