Child fighters are defending their people, Palestinians say

“M”, an 18-year-old fighter with the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, is sitting in his home in the Khan Younis refugee camp.

“I wanted to defend Palestine against Israel’s attacks. I am not afraid – our lives are in the hands of God,” he said.

Behind him, his 17-year-old brother “A”, a militant with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, is holding a sub-machinegun and has three grenades strapped to his waist.

A third brother, 16, is a member of the Al-Qassam Brigades, a military group affiliated to the Islamist and ruling political party, Hamas.

Their mother knows they are in the moqawama, the Arabic word for resistance, but could not stop them even if she wanted to. Their father, the head of the family, is dead.

“We have one life and we will die once only. So we will die trying to liberate Palestine,” said M, who was told which questions to answer and which to ignore by a fourth brother aged in his mid-20s.

The military wings of both Fatah and Hamas are known to have children within their ranks – and many die in combat with the vastly better-equipped conscript soldiers of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), who themselves are often no more than 18-years-old.

More than 800 children have been killed by the Israeli military since 2000. The charity, Defence for Children International, estimates that less than 20 per cent of those killed in recent months were actively engaged in the fighting.

The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade is the military wing of the Fatah political movement, which “M” was first introduced to six years ago at school by his classmates.

The political parties run summer camps for schoolchildren, but they do not serve as training grounds to turn boys and girls into fighters, according to Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza.

“Once we had a camp run by Islamic Jihad in which they tried to inflict some kind of training on the children, but this kind of thing should not happen and it was highly criticised at the time,” said Sourani.

“The groups compete to get the youngsters’ political support but not to recruit them for violent activities.”

No other jobs

However, observers told IRIN some young men join the militias in order to earn money or get assistance for their families because there are simply no other jobs.

All the exits from Gaza into Israel have been closed since the beginning of the second intifada (uprising by Palestinians against Israeli occupation) in 2000, leaving thousands of workers who used to work in Israel unemployed. The UN estimates that just a third of Gaza’s 1.4 million inhabitants are earning a living.

“The paucity of economic opportunities has made militias a magnet for job-seekers. The militias are the prime beneficiaries of the fragmentation of the PA [Palestinian Authority] welfare state and Israel’s closure of Palestinian trade routes,” said Nicolas Pelham, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.

“As one of the few functioning sectors of the Palestinian economy, the armed factions are filling the economic vacuum," he added.

“M” told IRIN the most he had received from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in return for his risking his life were occasional packages of food for his family. He said that at no stage had he been offered any money.

And all the Palestinians interviewed for this article said fighters were simply trying to stand up to Israel, irrespective of their age.

“The fighters are at the forefront of the struggle – even I see them as heroes,” said Sourani.

“The environment affects the kids most of all. Israel’s F-16 fighter jets, tanks and Apache helicopters are a 24-hour a day reality. You lose parents, classmates, your home. When you see kids playing here you see them playing with guns.”

“If you want to join up it’s easy. Everybody knows someone in the militias – your brother, your classmate, your neighbour. It’s not an isolated hardcore – it is the society.”

Psychologist Rana Nashashabi said there was little difference between children joining the Palestinian resistance and young recruits for almost any army in the world.

“From about 16 they are considered to be in optimum physical and mental condition and they are at an age when they want to carry guns and feel powerful,” she said.

In Israel, all boys and girls are required to serve in the military once they turn 18, although most Arab-Israelis are exempt from this. In Britain, 16-year-olds can join the army, although anyone under 18 must get permission from their parents.

Suicide bomb attacks

Palestinian teenagers have also taken part in suicide bomb attacks, although in recent years the attacks have become less frequent, something Israel says is due to its closure of Gaza, and the barrier it has built in the West Bank.

Huge posters of a teenage girl in hijab cover the walls of the small but freshly-painted Massoud family home in the Jabalia refugee camp north of Gaza City.

Mervat Massoud, a gifted 18-year-old university student, blew herself up in Beit Hanoun at the beginning of November this year in a bid to kill Israeli soldiers during Israel’s week-long occupation of the town.

On 6 November, the day she became a shahida, or martyr, her family remembers the quiet polite girl in tears after seeing an early morning news report of how Israeli shells had injured schoolchildren on a bus.

Later that day, members of the Islamic Jihad group strapped explosives to her body and sent her towards soldiers.

“We are very proud of her – the whole of Palestine knows about her. People came to the house to congratulate us. Naturally I would not have let her do this if I had known. We were hoping she might get a job and help the family,” said her father Ibrahim, 42.

Two years previously, Mervat’s 18-year-old cousin Nabil was one of two young bombers to blow themselves up in Ashdod Port, to the north of Gaza, killing 10 Israelis. The Massoud family says Israel still has not returned any remains of his body.
 
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[This article is part of a special IRIN series that looks at how conflict, poverty and social alienation are affecting the lives of children and teenagers. Read more: Youth in crisis: coming of age in the 21st century]