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Kids die, and the blood is on everyone's hands

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 18, 2000


BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- Past the place where Jesus was born, Palestinians on Tuesday carried a child to his grave.

He was Muayed Darwish, a 14-year-old student. Shot in the head by an Israeli soldier.

Palestinians say he was just heading home from school Monday, still in uniform and wearing his backpack, when he innocently strayed into a firefight.

Perhaps he was on his way from school, the Israel Defense Force says. But, the IDF says, he was also throwing a Molotov cocktail at soldiers.

Since Israeli-Palestinian violence exploded anew Sept. 28, an estimated 100 people have been killed and more than 2,000 wounded. The toll among Israeli Jews: eight dead, all adults. The toll among Palestinians: around 90 or so, including several children.

That some of the Palestinian victims are young raises two troubling questions:

Why are Israeli soldiers killing kids?

And why are Palestinians letting their kids get in harm's way?

Like everything else in this conflict, they are questions that have no easy answers. But they come up time and again, as Israelis and Palestinians accuse each other of exploiting dead children to advance their own causes.

In what Jews regard as a blatant propaganda, Palestinians charge that Israelis are deliberately murdering innocents.

"Stop Killing Palestinian Children," says one widely distributed, full-color poster with the now-famous image of 12-year-old Mohammed Al-Duri dying in his father's arms after being shot by an Israeli soldier.

Another large poster, that of an 18-month-old girl shot by a Jewish settler, bears this legend: "They kill Palestinian children. Will you say, "We did not know?' " The poster was issued by the Palestinian National Authority, the governing body of Palestinian areas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

For their part, Israelis accuse Palestinian leaders of encouraging families to let their children join demonstrations knowing full well that the protests are likely to turn violent. How, Israelis wonder, could any responsible parent let a child anywhere near a scene involving guns, live ammunition and highly charged emotions?

"Those children should not have been there in the first place," Capt. Natan Golan, an IDF spokesman, says of the young Palestinian victims.

With the exception of Mohammed Al-Duri, whose death shocked Jews as well as Arabs, the Israeli media in general has had only the sketchiest mention of Palestinian children killed in the recent violence. In most cases, the victims are not even named.

The Arab media, meanwhile, treat every youthful victim as a martyr and stridently accuse Israel of employing excessive force against children.

In recent days, however, both Arab and Jewish commentators have questioned how their own sides have reacted to the Palestinian casualties, albeit approaching the issue from very different angles.

Al Watan, a Kuwaiti newspaper, said Arabs are partly to blame for Mohammed Al-Duri's shocking death because they have done too little to help their Palestinian brethren over the years.

"Do you remember television footage of Israeli soldiers breaking the bones of Palestinian youths during the intifada a few years back," the paper asked. "Didn't we fume and threaten? What happened afterward? Nothing. Didn't the sight of Mohammed appall everyone of us? What will happen now? Nothing."

Meanwhile, Ha'aretz, Israel's leading newspaper, ran a lengthy story last Friday about three Palestinian teenagers shot by Israeli soldiers.

"Three bullets abruptly aborted the childhood of three youngsters, leaving behind one child who is permanently incapacitated and two whose lives are over," Ha'aretz said. "But who ever cares about disabled or dead Palestinian children?

"The fate of three Israeli soldiers who were kidnapped to Lebanon is an earth-shattering event, and rightly so. The fate of dead or wounded Palestinian children doesn't bother anyone in Israel or abroad, wrongly so."

At the center of the firestorm has been the Israel Defense Force, whose soldiers have drawn worldwide condemnation for using guns and live ammunition against Palestinian children often armed with nothing more than stones.

The IDF, though, counter that stones can also be dangerous weapons and that the use of live bullets is necessary to protect soldiers' lives.

"It's tragic to have a child fall in this violence, but there's no reason for the IDF to fire one shot if there's no violence," says Golan, the IDF spokesman. "All we're trying to say is stop this incessant incitement to violence. We are dealing with a situation in which kids are cynically being used by being put on the front lines where they may be killed, maimed or injured. . . . If a young boy falls, it gives the Palestinians a lot of propaganda points."

If Israeli soldiers are only acting in self-defense, though, how to explain Palestinian claims that some children have been hit from behind? X-rays clearly show that one of the boys in the Ha'aretz story had been shot in the back of the head.

"Unfortunately, they are taken to Palestinian hospitals so it is impossible for us to verify the claims," said Golan. "We're not saying they're true or not true."

Like other Israelis, Golan is incredulous that any Palestinians would let their children get into such potentially dangerous situations in the first place. "I have three kids," he said, "and I'd never send them into a war zone."

In fact, many Palestinian parents feel the same.

"I'm afraid they'll be killed or shot," said Rima Juha, a dentist's wife who insisted her four children stay home and clean the house during Tuesday's funeral for 14-year-old Muayed Darwish.

However, Nawal Nemeh, who works for an agency that helps impoverished Palestinian women, said she understood the frustrations that push entire families into anti-Israeli protests.

"People want the Israelis to leave our land and this is the only way they know how to do it," she said. But, she added, she too would be afraid to let her children take part.

Like many of the young Palestinians who have been killed in recent weeks, Muayed Darwish lived in a refugee camp where it's not unusual for 10 or 12 people to share two squalid rooms. There is virtually nothing for children to do, so the boys, especially, spend much of their time in the streets.

On Tuesday morning, as Muayed's funeral procession began, there was not a school or store open in Bethlehem. Scores of boys and girls joined thousands of adults as his body, wrapped in a Palestinian flag, was borne down the steep streets.

At times it had the air of a macabre parade, with people watching from windows and balconies. There were jeeps full of Palestinian soldiers and ambulances with red lights flashing. The mayor of Bethlehem joined the march, as did several Franciscan monks and flag-waving members of militant Palestinian factions -- Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Palestinian Democratic Movement.

"Bring us weapons and we will give you our souls!" some shouted.

"We will fight Tel Aviv!"

"Allahu Akbar (God is great!)"

Among those swept along in the crowds were Rafaf Malish and his 10-year-old son.

"Yes, I'm afraid for him, but he wanted to be here," Malish said. "He went to the same school as Muayed."

As he spoke, Malish firmly grasped his little boy's right hand. His left arm was covered by a cast.

He had been hurt last week, during a fight between Israelis and Palestinians.

Susan Martin can be reached at susan@sptimes.com

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