Friday, 8 December 2000

Let our kids alone, Arafat told

Matthew Kalman

USA TODAY December 8 2000 Page 16A

TULKARM, WEST BANK -- In a rare letter of protest sent this week to
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, a Palestinian women's group demanded that
the Palestinian Authority stop using children as cannon fodder.

''Our children are being sent into the streets to face heavily armed Israeli
soldiers,'' said the letter from the Tulkarm Women's Union -- a local branch
of the Palestinian Women's Union, a trade-union group that promotes the
status of women in the Palestinian Authority.

''The Palestinian Authority must put an end to this phenomenon. We urge you
to issue instructions to your police force to stop sending innocent children
to their death.''

The letter adds weight to complaints from parents who are beginning to speak
out despite what they say has been two months of intimidation by armed
gunmen loyal to Arafat.

''We don't want to send our sons to the front line, but they are being taken
by the Palestinian Authority,'' says Aisheh, 43, a mother of six in the West
Bank city of Tulkarm. She says she decided to speak out after her
17-year-old son was hit in the head by a rubber bullet last week. He
suffered a concussion.

Like other protesting parents, Aisheh declines to allow her full name to be
published for fear of reprisals. A nurse from Gaza who spoke out on
Palestinian TV against sending children to the flash points was condemned in
the Palestinian media as a traitor. Other individuals who refuse to allow
their names to be published say they have been threatened by armed Fatah
officials for discouraging their children from participating in the clashes.

Israel has faced international criticism for the deaths of at least 38
children under the age of 17 in more than two months of conflict in which
nearly 300 people have died. Nearly 1,000 children have been injured. The
Palestinians consider anyone under the age of 17 a child. But children just
entering their teens -- and some even younger -- have been injured in the
region's worst violence in nearly a decade.

Despite their parents' objections, many Palestinian children appear eager to
fight the Israelis and even become martyrs for the Palestinian cause: an
independent state.

An Israeli human rights group this week charged that Israeli soldiers
routinely open fire on unarmed Palestinian demonstrators. But the group,
B'Tselem -- created in 1989, according to its Web site, to ''change Israeli
policy'' to protect Palestinians -- also said the Palestinian leadership was
making little effort to keep children and gunmen away from potentially
violent confrontations.

Bassam Abu Sharif, a special adviser to Arafat, has accused Israeli troops
of ''cold-blooded killing.'' He denies Israeli accusations that the
Palestinian Authority has placed children at the front of demonstrations to
act as human shields for armed gunmen.

''We don't send children -- nobody can send children -- and we don't hide
behind children,'' Abu Sharif says. ''The kids in the demonstrations were
there because they were out of school. We love our children the same way
other human beings love their children.''

Israeli army chiefs point out that not all the children killed in the recent
clashes have been innocent bystanders. They say their snipers have orders to
shoot anyone shooting or throwing Molotov cocktails at them, but some of the
attackers have been as young as 12.

The most famous casualty of the latest Israeli-Palestinian conflict was
Mohammed Al-Dourra, a 12-year-old boy shot dead on the second day of
fighting as he took cover in his father's arms during a gun battle in the
Gaza Strip. His last moments were caught on camera by a French TV crew and
broadcast around the world.

Abu Sharif says Palestinian police are trying to dissuade children from
taking part in clashes with Israeli soldiers. He adds: ''These kids are on
the streets. For them, banners and demonstrations are a festival.''

But Aisheh says the militia of Arafat's Fatah movement and the Palestinian
security forces provide transportation and encouragement to children eager
to answer the call to combat Israel's continued presence on Arab land.

''When school finishes, Palestinian Authority security cars go around
collecting children from the streets and sending them to the killing
fields,'' she says. ''This is very serious because they are children and
they are unarmed.''

Palestinian Authority TV broadcasts constant images of children carrying
weapons and staging mock attacks on Israelis.

Over the summer, children as young as 12 were trained in the use of
Kalshnikov rifles and other weapons at special camps by Fatah officials.

Ramahan Sahadi Abed Rabbah, 13, was asked by the official Palestinian
Authority newspaper why he participated in clashes with soldiers. ''My
purpose is not to be wounded, but something more sublime -- martyrdom,'' he

''As the number of those killed rises, the Palestinian media extol and exalt
not only those killed, but also their willingness to die as martyrs for
Allah, emphasizing that dying a martyr's death was the realization of their
hopes,'' says Itamar Marcus, director of the Palestinian Media Watch
monitoring group.

Palestinian Authority TV and newspapers also have come under fire, accused
of encouraging children to throw stones and Molotov cocktails at armed
Israeli troops.

Aisheh's husband, Abdelghani, says intimidation has kept parents from
speaking out.

''No one here dares to say publicly that he is against sending his own
children to the front line,'' he says. ''Some parents who have tried to
protest have been condemned as fifth columnists (traitors) and threatened.''

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