Monday, 11 December 2000

Parents protest risk to children

Palestinian leaders, militia come under fire as recent clashes take dozens of young lives

Monday, December 11, 2000

By Matthew Kalman

TULKARM, WEST BANK -- Some Palestinian parents are starting to speak out against their leaders, saying children are being encouraged to risk their lives in clashes with Israeli troops.
After more than two months under the control of armed gunmen loyal to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, residents of the West Bank town of Tulkarm have, in an unprecedented step, demanded that local militia stop sending their children to take part in gun battles. Six Tulkarm youths have been killed in more than two months of clashes.

"We don't want to send our sons to the front line, but they are being taken by the Palestinian Authority," Aisheh, a 43-year-old mother of six, said in an interview. She said she decided to speak out after her 17-year-old son was hit in the head by a rubber bullet last week, but asked that her full name not be published for fear of reprisals.

Israel has come under international criticism for the deaths of at least 38 Palestinian children under the age 17 in the upsurge of violence that began Sept. 28 and has claimed more than 300 lives, most of them Palestinian. Nearly 1,000 Palestinian children have been injured.

Bassam Abu Sharif, a special adviser to Mr. Arafat, condemned Israeli troops for "cold-blooded killing" and angrily denied Israeli accusations that the Palestinian Authority has sent children to the front of demonstrations to act as a human shield for armed gunmen.

"We don't send children -- nobody can send children -- and we don't hide behind children," Mr. Abu Sharif said in an interview. "We have never used kids, we will never use kids. We love our children the same way other human beings love their children."

He said Palestinian police officers try to dissuade children from taking part in clashes.

But Aisheh, the mother, said the decision to put children on the front line is being carried out by officials from the Palestinian Authority security forces and the militia of Mr. Arafat's Fatah movement.

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

When the school day or Friday prayers are over, she said, children are taken to El-Khadouri at the western entrance to Tulkarm, where there are daily clashes with Israeli troops.

Her husband, Abdelghani, said parents had been stopped from speaking out. "No one here dares to say publicly that he is against sending his own children to the front line," he said.

"Some parents who have tried to protest have been condemned as fifth columnists and threatened. . . . Once the children are injured, it's the families who have to spend days and weeks at their bedside. From that point on, no one cares about them, except for their own family."

He added that the children of Palestinian officials were noticeably absent from the deadly demonstrations.

"Why don't our leaders send their own children to be killed? The answer is because most of their children have already been sent abroad to safety in Europe and the United States," Abdelghani said.

The couple are not alone in their complaints. The Tulkarm Women's Union sent a rare letter of protest to Mr. Arafat last week demanding he stop using children as cannon fodder.

"Our children are being sent into the streets to face heavily armed Israeli soldiers," the letter says. ". . . We urge you to issue instructions to your police force to stop sending innocent children to their death." The letter concludes, "We love our children and we want them to live."

Palestinian media have also been criticized for encouraging children to throw stones and Molotov cocktails at armed Israeli troops.

Palestinian television regularly broadcasts images of children carrying weapons and staging mock attacks on Israelis.

And the Palestinian media exalt those killed as martyrs for Allah, "emphasizing that dying a martyr's death was the realization of their hopes," noted Itamar Marcus, director of the Palestinian Media Watch monitoring group.

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