Childhood is short and bloody for youngsters growing up in the middle of a war zone, writes Ed O’Loughlin.
A Friday afternoon in Gaza City and a Palestinian militant group is staging a passing out parade for its newest recruits.
On a dirt soccer pitch 24 masked recruits of the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) go through a program of singing, marching and very ragged foot drill. Some clutch real rifles, others wooden cut-outs.
There are wanted men present, and two Israeli attack helicopters are circling nearby.
Out on the pitch a masked fighter tiger-crawls to the halfway line, pushing a homemade bomb. As a show of force someone throws a hand grenade into a rubbish tip, but he gets the cue wrong and no one was looking when it went off. “Allahu Akbar,” he shouts anyway.
The trainees have a strange way of moving. During a simulated hijacking the gunmen crouch and swivel like Spider-Man, brandishing their rifles in stiff, formal movements.
When the masks come off, one reason for the play-acting becomes apparent: several of these would-be “fighters” are barely 12 years old.
“I want to be a fighter against the Jews,” said Ahmed, 12. “The Israelis have no right to be on our territory. This territory is our own – all of Palestine, not just Gaza and the West Bank.”
Like all the young trainees, Ahmed wears a black T-shirt bearing the name of the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC). It also shows a Kalashnikov rifle over a silhouette of Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa mosque and the slogan, “Kill them where you find them”.
“I’d like to carry out a martyrdom attack [suicide bombing] for the sake of God,” says another recruit, also called Ahmed, 14. “The Israelis hate us deeply.”
Up on the dunes, a crudely painted Star of David represents a dummy Israeli position which the trainees are planning to storm as the climax to the ceremony. But then one of the Israeli helicopters swoops towards the soccer pitch, the crowd scatters in panic and the program is cut short. Besides, some blokes have turned up in soccer kit, and say they’ve booked the pitch.
It would be tempting to dismiss the boys’ words as rhetoric and their training as shambolic. But a few days later on that same football pitch 14 militants were killed and 40 people injured when Israeli helicopters fired missiles into a training session for the larger militant group, Hamas.The raid was a response to a double Hamas suicide bombing in the southern city of Beersheba the week before that claimed the lives of 16 Israelis, and the two bombers.
The PRC may be one of the smaller groups in Gaza, but it has shown itself capable of destroying Israeli tanks, attacking Jewish settlements and persuading young people to die for it.
Early last year three Palestinian boys, aged 15 and 16, were shot dead as they attempted to cut through the fence of a Jewish settlement equipped with wire cutters and a knife. The PRC sent them.
Nothing, apart from the suicide bombing of innocent civilians, has done more to tarnish the Palestinian cause in the eyes of the world than the use of teenagers as fighters/terrorists.
And for every minor who is handed a bomb or a gun, thousands more go out into the streets of the West Bank and Gaza to participate in “clashes” – confrontations between well-armed Israeli soldiers and boys and youths armed with slingshots and stones.
A week seldom goes by without one or two of these boys dying – shot, the Israeli army usually claims, in a crossfire, or by their own side, or while about to throw a petrol bomb, or while acting as human shields for “terrorists”, or for acting suspiciously.
Itamar Marcus, an Israeli activist and former government adviser, says the Palestinian Authority and the militant groups are exploiting an Islamic cult of martyrdom to incite young people to hate Israel, to kill Jews, and to throw away their lives.
His Jerusalem-based Palestine Media Watch monitors Arabic broadcasts, newspapers and even school textbooks for evidence of incitement of hatred.
One propaganda clip, repeatedly aired on the Palestinian Authority’s TV channel, shows a young boy heading off to meet his death in a “clash”. In saccharine slo-mo, to the accompaniment of an aching patriotic song, the child writes his farewell letter to his parents and then gets shot in the act of throwing a stone.
Other crudely dramatised clips falsely depict Israeli troops machine-gunning soccer-playing children, executing an old man – even blowing up a football. Many of the sporting teams and leagues in the West Bank are named after “terrorists”, says Marcus. So are many Palestinian Authority schools.
Palestinian schoolbooks also encourage hatred against Jews and delegitimise Israel, says Marcus. For example, maps in the books do not show Israel by name.
“You have a whole society that is giving the message to kids that Israel is your enemy and the whole land is yours – not just the West Bank and Gaza,” says Marcus.
For many Israelis and their foreign supporters, such incitement is not something that contributes to the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is its sole cause. Without incitement, claims Marcus, Palestinians would have no reason to dislike Israel. Before 1987, he says, the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza liked Israel and lived happily and relatively prosperously under its benevolent rule. Then came the first intifada, in which Israelis killed about 1000 Palestinians – many of them stone-throwing boys – and suffered about 100 losses in return.
“The first intifada was a few thousand people in a population of a few million,” says Marcus. “This was something that wasn’t spontaneous. It was very carefully directed. There was money coming in, people inciting the kids, paying the kids and giving them candy.”
The Palestinians – and indeed many Israelis – take a different view of race relations in the Holy Land.
“We don’t have to deny the hatred,” says Dr Iyad Sarraj, a leading child psychiatrist in the Gaza Strip. “The Israelis are full of hatred for us too. We have reasons and so do they.”
Direct experience of raids and assassinations has left a third of Gaza’s children with the full symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to Sarraj’s studies. Another third are well on their way.
“At school they are restless. They are aggressive, violent. Gaza has the highest rate of bed-wetting in the world. They don’t sleep well and they have nightmares. They have flashbacks of things they have seen. And when you tell them to draw, everything you see is blood and violence and Apache helicopters and tanks and F16s and dead bodies.
“When you ask these children what they’d like to be when they are older, 36 per cent of 12-year-old boys say they want to be a martyr. Death is a way out for them. To them it is a source of hope.”
Although he sees Israel’s occupation as the primary cause of the problem, Serraj also accuses militant groups and Palestinian Authority leaders of taking advantage of the violence and the poverty of daily life to recruit children as young as eight into their “summer camps”.
Raed Othman, director of the non-governmental Palestinian network Maan TV, has produced discussion programs on incitement and related issues, often featuring Israeli journalists.
He claims that much of what Israeli pressure groups call incitement is merely reporting of Palestinian realities – little different from the wall-to-wall reporting that follows every major terrorist atrocity in Israel. But he concedes that there are problems with the highly emotional style and rhetoric that seeps into Arabic news writing.
“We are trying to give Palestinian journalists the idea that it is not right to exaggerate the issues,” he says. “It’s not necessary to use big or strong words in your articles. The occupation itself is incitement enough.”
Many Palestinians also complain of the crude bias and propaganda of the Arafat-controlled Palestinian Authority TV channels. Few still watch them. Instead, the most popular sources for news are now Arab satellite channels like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, Western sources like the BBC and even Israeli Army Radio. Not that the Israeli media is perfect, says Othman.
“The Israeli media is full of propaganda by the Government – their news reports take whatever the Israeli Defence Force spokesmen say as completely true. The result is that Israelis who live right beside Bethlehem, close enough to hear the loudspeakers when they impose a curfew, have no idea of what really goes on here. How can they know in Tel Aviv?”
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