Children dying for freedom

27th October 2000 at 01:00
As they battle for world sympathy, Palestinian and Israeli sides blame each other for the young casualties

AT the start of the latest Palestinian uprising, Mona Hamed was able to keep Mohammed, her 14-year-old son, off the streets.

On the first day, she told him he couldn't go out because of homework. On the second day, he was asked to clean the yard. But on the third day, he slipped away.

The ninth-grader and several friends from his quiet, middle-class neighbourhood headed straight to a rock-throwing skirmish at a traffic circle on the outskirts of Ramallah.

While his friends withdrew when a fire-fight erupted between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli soldiers, Mohammed stayed behind his makeshift barricade close to Israeli positions, throwing stones. He was shot and killed.

Mohammed became one of the fast-growing number of Palestinian youngsters killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers.

The Israeli human rights group Betselem said that at least 26 of the 109 Palestinians killed in the first four weeks of fighting were minors. The Palestinian group Law believed at least 40 victims were 18 or younger.

Israel and the Palestinian Authority have been arguing bitterly over responsibility for the deaths - a debate that could determine which side gets the world's sympathy. Israel said its troops targeted only gunmen and those hurling firebombs, and accused Palestinian leaders of exploiting children for jut that reason.

The Palestinian Authority said that older street activists had been trying to keep those 16 and younger away from the clashes.

Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, said Israel used excessive force, but Amnesty also accused Palestinian groups of calling children out of school to join the street battles.

Marwan Barghouti, the West Bank strongman and leader of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, said parents had trouble keeping children away from danger. "I didn't even succeed to convince my son, who is 15," he admitted.

Mrs Hamed said Mohammed clearly hadn't expected to die. When his body was brought home, the cuffs of his beige trousers were rolled up. His friends told her Mohammed hadn't wanted to dirty his clothes - his mother would have questioned him about where he had been.

Yet Mrs Hamed, 41, later learned that her son had slipped a photo of himself and a note with his name, address and phone number into his breast pocket - in case he got killed that day.

"Another guy died earlier in the week," said his 14-year-old friend and classmate, Samir Jaber. "He didn't have his ID on him. Mohammed said, 'If I die, I want people to know who I am.' "

Samir said Mohammed and the other boys talked incessantly about what it would be like to be a "shaheed" - a martyr for Palestine. Those who didn't want to confront Israeli soldiers were shunned as cowards, Samir said.

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