Palestinian children flirt with death

Martyrdom: Attracted to danger, boys not yet in their teens follow their hero-worship of fighters into deadly Israeli fire in the refugee camps.

October 10, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JABALIYA REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip -- He defied the orders of his father and the pleas of his friends and walked a few blocks from his home to watch Palestinian militants fight Israeli soldiers.

Hours later, Mohammed al-Najar, 12, was dead, one side of his face sheared off by a tank shell fired at combatants during one of the fiercest battles of the weeklong Israeli incursion here.

The boy died last week doing what many children do when the shooting starts -- he rushed to the masked gunmen, excited by the action, the noise, the danger.

Israeli army commanders complain that militants use the boys as human shields, but the children often run to the gunmen on their own, against the orders of their parents -- a result of what many here say is a breakdown in the traditional authority of the Palestinian family.

"Some people would say he is a hero, a martyr," says Mohammed's friend Hamza Khalid, 14. "Some people would say that his father did not take care of him."

At least 88 Palestinians have been killed since last week in this Israeli offensive in northern Gaza. Human rights groups say at least half of those killed were civilians and at least 18 were 16 years old or younger.

While those youngsters were apparently innocent bystanders, some battle the Israelis and others venture near to see the fighting. Experts say the adolescents are attracted to risky adventures and enthralled by a culture that embraces martyrdom.

"These children are growing up in a unique environment," says Samir Qouta, a psychologist with the Gaza Community Mental Health Program. "They have lost their childhood, and the father's role is collapsing."

`Ongoing trauma'

Children living in this camp face what Qouta describes as "ongoing trauma," in which a child getting over the death of a friend or relative has to be ready for another loss and to grieve all over again.

Facing the Israelis is equivalent to challenging one's own destruction, he says, and children who feel that death is inevitable would rather take destiny into their hands than wait to be killed by a bullet in their home.

Additionally, he and colleagues say, the Palestinian father's traditionally strong stature has been diminished in the eyes of his children, who perceive his inability to stop the fighting as a weakness. Unable to fill his role as protector, he is unable to exert control as a father.

"Palestinians, like any other people, are concerned for the health of their children," Qouta says. "They don't want their children to be involved in the fighting. But they are failing.

"The children need role models, and with their fathers perceived as being weak, they are looking for someone to emulate. In Gaza, that is a gunman."

Haj al-Najar, 48, says Mohammed rose early last Sunday, showered and set off for Prep A, a school run by the United Nations that was taken over by Israeli soldiers in the first days of the battle. He says his son wanted to see whether the school was open, and he was killed nearby.

But Mohammed's uncle says the boy argued with his father the night before about confronting the Israeli soldiers and the distraught father could not admit to himself that he had been unable to save his son.

"Of course, we are afraid for our children," says Diab al-Najar, 32. "We want our children to grow up, not to be killed. The problem is, the camp is very small. They go out to play, not to fight. They go out, and who knows what happens to them? When they see gunmen, they run after them."

Mohammed excelled in school and was known for his fearlessness. He had asked two friends to join him Sunday on the front lines, but both had refused.

"I told him I didn't think he was coming back," says Mahmoud Youssef Abu Saleh, 12.

Mohammed scoffed at them, Hamza says. "He told us that we were weak, that we were nothing."

Mahmoud says the attraction of the fighters is often too much to ignore.

"Sometimes we go to help," he says. "Sometimes we go to throw stones. But we are afraid. Sometimes children go because they want to be martyred." Those who participate, he says, "become big men" in the camp.

Hamza says he thinks the exercise is futile and best left to experienced gunmen. "What am I going to do with a stone against a tank?" he says.

Both boys are small and frail, and their views are shaped by the daily gunbattles outside their front doors in the confines of the refugee camp, where 106,000 people are packed into a half-mile square.

Of the two, only Hamza has ventured outside the camp -- a brief trip to a hospital in neighboring Gaza City, a 15-minute drive that he excitedly calls "an excursion." He says he dreams about Norway, a place he knows because he tried out unsuccessfully for a spot on the Palestinian national soccer team, which was to play there.

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