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Saturday, 27 April, 2002, 12:50 GMT 13:50 UK
Children bear scars of Mid-East conflict
Palestinian children play near a poster of a dead fighter
Children play near a poster of a dead fighter
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By Kathryn Westcott
BBC News Online
line

School was over for the day and the three 14-year-olds told their parents they were going to play with friends.

Hours later, their bodies were found near a Jewish settlement. They were apparently on a suicide mission and had been killed by Israeli snipers.

The boys left behind suicide notes and weapons were discovered on their bodies.

A Palestinian boy plays amid the rubble in Jenin
An estimated 600,000 Palestinian children have been unable to attend school
Their actions - coming a week after a similar attempted suicide mission by another 14-year-old - has raised fears among community leaders that children are increasingly being motivated to emulate the actions of their elders.

Dr Rita Giacaman, associate professor and director of the institute of community and public health at Bir Zeit university in the West Bank, describes the problem as serious.

'Helpless'

She told BBC News Online that children and youths have been deeply traumatised by seeing and hearing of Palestinians - especially those of their own age - being killed or injured and are increasingly feeling the need to "do something".


Children need to play and laugh - but now they have fears and responsibilities

Mona Zaghrout, rehabilitation counsellor
Over the past month, she says, young people have witnessed death or injury of friends, some have been arrested and then released.

She says they have suffered as a result of the destruction wrought by the Israeli military operation in the West Bank and have been left "feeling totally helpless and incapacitated".

The problem, she says, is partly cumulative, stemming mainly from deprivation and poverty.

Television role

"Many of the people carrying out the attacks were children during the first Palestinian uprising and were frustrated during the years of the Oslo peace process," she said.

Today, these youths feel they have no future, she says. They see their fathers out of work and believe if they throw stones at an Israeli checkpoint or turn to suicide bombings they "give dignity to their families".

A Palestinian boy throws a pipe bomb at an Israeli checkpoint
Palestinians say youths are driven by desperation to attack Israeli checkpoints
She says a worrying trend is that young children are increasingly talking of turning to violence - and not just those motivated by poverty and despair but those from middle-class backgrounds who are just simply angry.

Many counsellors agree that one of the biggest problems is that televised scenes of violence and destruction are being continually beamed into Palestinian homes, heightening psychological damage.

Mona Zaghrout, who helps run rehabilitation centres in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, says because of the curfews imposed by the Israelis on much of the West Bank, tens of thousands of children are locked in their houses watching television.

Trauma

The Defence for Children International - Palestinian Section (DCI/PS) - estimates that 25 children have been killed and tens injured during the recent military incursion.

The figure cannot be independently verified but is expected to be the subject of the upcoming UN fact-finding mission.

The United Nations children's agency Unicef says an estimated 600,000 children in the Palestinian territories have been prevented from attending school.

Ms Zaghrout says the situation is becoming dangerous. "Children hear houses being shelled at night, they hear of neighbours being killed and fathers who can't work and something goes inside them."


They are so desperate and there is so much violence around them - that they react in the name of community

Dr Rita Giacaman
"Children need to play and laugh. But they now have fears and responsibilities," says Ms Zaghrout.

"But many are showing signs of trauma," she says, "such as nightmares, bed-wetting and psychosomatic symptoms - stomach aches, high fevers and rashes - when there is nothing physically wrong with them."

The centres have been going for a number of years, but Ms Zaghrout fears that after the recent military incursions, they will have to start again with many of their trauma programmes.

Hamas

In the wake of the latest suicide mission by the 14-year-olds, the Palestinian militant group Hamas issued a statement calling on children to refrain from futile attacks against Israelis.

The Israeli Government says Palestinian children and youths are increasingly being exploited by militant groups to carry out suicide attacks.

Many Palestinians maintain that desperation plays a large part.

"How can you explain why 14-year-olds do such a thing," says Rita Giacaman.

"They are so desperate and there is so much violence around them that they react in the name of community - a community that is numbed and stunned."

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