Page last updated at 07:54 GMT, Friday, 27 February 2009

Despair and rage among Gaza's youths

Gazan youths Mohammad al-Mukayed, 22 (left) and Hassan Abu al-Jeddian, 23 (centre).
Mohammad (left) is thinking of joining the militants, but Hassan (centre) stresses he remains a "civilian"

By Heather Sharp
BBC News, Gaza

Ten young men sit talking and smoking by the light of a paraffin lamp in a basement room.

The flags of militant groups - Hamas, Islamic Jihad - flutter outside among the densely packed cinder-block houses of Gaza's Jabaliya refugee camp.

The area is a key haunt of the factions behind the rocket attacks that Israel's recent assault on Gaza was aimed at ending.

Its frustrated, mainly unemployed youths are prime recruitment targets for the militants.

But as the young men, sitting in coats in the unheated room, mull over Israel's 22-day operation, despair is as common a theme as revenge.

About half of the group say they have been members of armed groups at some point. Others now say they want to join.

Gazan youth Jihad al-Ajramy, 24
I hope an earthquake flattens this place
Jihad al-Ajramy, 24, Jabaliya refugee camp

"I used to keep away from military activity," says student Ahmad al-Khateeb, 21. "I wanted to graduate and leave the country. I was sometimes afraid of death".

But now, unable to sit his exams because his ID papers are buried under the rubble of his home, he says his views have "completely changed".

Sports science student Mohammad al-Mukayed, 22, says he saw three children killed by an airstrike as they played in the street just meters away from him.

"They were just pieces of flesh. I wanted to help but I couldn't. I do think of joining a group. I would rather be killed defending my land than die like these kids, doing nothing."

Hassan Abu al-Jeddian, 23, says says he was not interested in militant activity before the war, and his views have not changed.

He says his cousin's head was blown off in an air strike and describes watching three young boys killed as a car in front of him was hit, but says simply, "I am a civilian".

'Living dead'

With the Israeli blockade of Gaza most of the youths are unemployed and unable to leave the crowded strip of land.

Israel intensified the blockade when Hamas, which it considers a terrorist organisation, won elections in 2006 and consolidated control by force a year later.

With few job opportunities even for those who can afford to study, many young people dream of emigrating.

"We're dead - either by Israeli weapons or as the living dead," says Mahmoud Abuqammar, 22.

Rabah Mohanna, a political leader with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, one of the smaller militant factions, says the organisation has seen an in increase in the number of people volunteering to carry out suicide bombings since the conflict.


Many of them are young; most have either lost relatives or homes, or seen it happen to others, he says.

But in the face of the massive firepower Israel used, and with the Palestinians riven by bitter internal divisions, there is disillusionment too.

Jihad al-Ajramy, 24, still bears a scar on his cheek from his two years as a militant, which he says ended when open warfare broke out between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority-linked Fatah.

The workshop he used to work in has long since closed as the flow of raw materials dried up under the blockade.

"I used to earn 200 shekels ($50) a day, now I even have to borrow cigarettes. None of these military factions is helping me. Why would I join?"

"During the war, everybody was thinking of fighting, of revenge, of going back to military action - but what fighting? Fighting against Israeli F16s?"

Seeking normal life

Dr Iyad Sarraj has worked for 30 years as a psychiatrist in Gaza and carried out numerous studies.

He says children who have seen their fathers disempowered often adopt other figures or power and authority - ultimately the militant fighter or "martyr".

Thus, he says, the generation that saw their fathers beaten by Israeli troops during the stone-throwing of the first Palestinian intifada grew up to become the suicide bombers of the second intifada.

Street scene in Jabaliya
Jabaliya refugee camp is one of the most deprived and densely populated places in the Gaza Strip

In the recent war, he says, "children lost a father twice" - once as a provider, as the blockade brought massive unemployment, and once as a protector.

"There was no safe place in Gaza at all… fathers were so impotent."

He fears Gaza will end up with "a new generation who are even more militant than the past ones".

And traumatised young men are particularly hard to treat: "They have this identity as an Arab, macho, a strong man… expressing pain is weakness," he says.

But since the conflict he has sensed a change in the way the militant groups are perceived.

"Some people were hit very hard and have a strong desire for revenge, but I think more and more people realised that Palestinian violence will only drag the Israelis into becoming more brutal."

Emad Ali Darweesh is the director of the youth organisation Save Youth Future.

He stresses that Gaza has a young population, with 56% of its 1.5m residents under the age of 18.

But he believes only a small proportion of them are interested in militant activity.

Even Gazans enraged by personal losses would probably ultimately prefer peace, he says, pointing out that some polls have shown a drop in support for Hamas in the wake of the war.

"In the beginning they are upset and calling for revenge… but they will forgive the blood of their sons if there is a peaceful solution."

Mahmoud Abuqammar says all he really wants is "to build a family, to live, like any normal person". Hassan Abu al-Jeddian says his biggest dream is "to get married".

"We're 24. We don't even have a single shekel to give to the family of a girl we want to marry," says Jihad al-Ajramy.

"I can't see any hope, any future. I hope an earthquake will flatten this place."

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