Child martyrs

Some of the 49 children shot in Rafah during 2001 and 2002


31 December 2002

While I was walking along a street in Rafah with a retired headmaster, we met one of his former pupils who is now a political activist. We will call him Ali. Ali is particularly involved with children whom he helps run a childrenís parliament. The aim is to foster discussion of approaches to peace and democracy and to help the children learn how democracy should work in local and national government.

We sat down in Aliís office with a number of boys who had joined us. Ali started by telling the stories of four "terrorists who presented such a threat to the existence of the Israeli state and even to the White House that they had to be killed." He then gave me a poster with the photos of 49 such "terrorists" Ė boys and girls from infancy to 17 years of age who have been killed in Rafah by the Israelis in the past two years.

Bara Eschaer, aged 12, confronted tanks with stones. The conscience of the soldier who shot him dead must have been of stone, Ali suggested. Bara was with three friends and he wanted them to learn English so they could tell the world about the plight of the Palestinians and thereby try to achieve peace for his people. He was on his way to his third English class. How, Ali asked, can we persuade friends of Bara not to become friends of Bin Laden but become friends of peace?

Drawing to commemorate a friend who was shot.
The 14-year-old artist was himself shot dead while going home from school

One morning eight months ago, Khalil woke early. He loved athletics and sport. As there was no playground in the refugee camp where he lived, he went off with a football to a piece of ground near the Egyptian border which he thought was safe because a cease-fire had been announced. Khalil did not think playing with his ball presented a threat to the Israeli state. Nor, surely, did the soldier in a watch tower who shot him.

Eleven-year-old Hamad was a member of the Childrenís Parliament. He had attended a session which considered freedom of speech and the rights of the child. Children cried when Hamadís right to life was taken away by an Israeli bullet.

Thaerlahout liked the idea of childrenís summer camps. He helped run a camp on the runway of the Rafah international airport, which has been made unuseable by Israeli bulldozers. The children flew paper kites and made a seven metre long model plane. They hoped they would get international publicity and thereby force Israel to stop committing atrocities in Rafah. Thaerlahout wanted to move freely in his own country and to travel abroad. These hopes came to an end when an Israeli soldier gave him a ticket to Paradise.

After the killing of another child - Ibrahim - Ali was surprised to find the children had set up a court to try Prime Minister Sharon. One of them charged him with killing and imprisoning civilians without cause. The children brought a picture of Ibrahim and had a collection for wreathes in his memory and that of another child martyr. They knew very well that their court had no power, but they also had no confidence that the international court at the Hague, or the UN, will punish the crimes of Sharon and Israeli soldiers. Ali had said to the children: "Donít be in haste. The world will jump to help us." But he is now ashamed that he lied to the children: "I have lost faith that others will help us."

Two years before Therlahoutís death, Ali took members of the Childrenís Parliament to Germany and Poland but such trips are no longer permitted. Some who went have been killed, some injured, others are in prison. One phoned him recently from prison and talked about seeds of peace. Ali said he could not reply: While Gaza remains a prison, I have nothing to say about peace. The idea of peace is a lie." He quoted what Mandela said on release from prison: when a journalist asked about the prospect for peace, Mandela replied: "In this place we cannot talk about peace."

I asked Ali why, as he is encouraging the children to think how peace can be brought about, he was carrying a gun when we met him on the road. He replied: "By me carrying my gun, I prepare my children for peace by showing we must stand up for our homeland. I hate carrying the gun and my children seeing it. Israeli oppression obliges us all to resist, even with stones. I have more confidence in the gun than in Israel or the US giving us peace. We face such oppression, I would not mind if the US and the UK and other supporters of Israel were incinerated.

"Tomorrow we start a course about democracy and peace. It is a contradiction: how can I talk to my children about peace when houses are being demolished? We tell the US and the UK we are not terrorists. Hope is a short word but it has a big meaning. Maybe hope disappears for some time, but it does not die. The hope is for liberation of the Palestinian lands."

The boys had lots to ask and to say. "Tony Blair should come to Palestine and see how we suffer." "What would you do if your country was occupied?" "We used to have good relations with Jews before the state of Israel." "Balfour was a mistake which is not recoverable. The Arabs were not consulted."

After leaving the boys, the headmaster and I passed the scene of house demolitions close to a mosque where I had seen an old man chasing boys out of danger at the beginning of December. The mosque is still standing. There was a tank (fortunately quiescent) lurking on bulldozed land within 100 yards of it.

We continued walking behind the line of demolitions. A boy of showed us the spot where his cousin, 17-year-old Haisam Nuthat, was standing when he was shot dead by an Israeli soldier two months ago. His holed and blood-stained T-shirt is still there.

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