'They see their friends going, and they want to go'

For Palestinian children in Gaza, an education in conflict

Hundreds of children bused to border protests by Hamas have been wounded, but more keep coming, entranced by the festive atmosphere and peer validation

In this September 16, 2018, photo, Raed Abu Khader, right, carries his 12-year-old son Mohammed as they return from the hospital in Gaza City. Mohammed was shot in the leg at one of the demonstrations on Gaza's border with Israel. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
In this September 16, 2018, photo, Raed Abu Khader, right, carries his 12-year-old son Mohammed as they return from the hospital in Gaza City. Mohammed was shot in the leg at one of the demonstrations on Gaza's border with Israel. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

When Mazen al-Dalo took two of his young sons to see the Palestinian protests against Israel’s decade-old blockade of Gaza, he knew it could be dangerous.

Hamas operatives operating along the border and, on occasion, infiltrating Israel, were not the only ones being shot by Israeli soldiers. Rock-throwing demonstrators who are deemed to be a threat were, too, and armored Israeli jeeps were firing volleys of tear gas into the crowds in a bid to contain and disperse the protests.

But it was important to teach the boys about Palestinian history, he said, and give them a glimpse of the modern-day struggles their people face. “Seeing things with your own eyes is different than reading about them in books,” the 44-year-old father said, explaining his decision to take the children, aged 8 and 11, one day last April.

The family only ventured about 400 meters from the border, al-Dalo said — a spot he insisted was safely away from the violent confrontations. But just as he pointed to a group of Israeli soldiers atop a berm on the other side of the border fence, a single gunshot rang out.

The round ripped off al-Dalo’s thumb and struck his 8-year-old son, Mohamed, in the leg — two more casualties in a simmering conflict that began last spring and has seen 948 Palestinians under the age of 18 shot and wounded by Israeli forces, according to United Nations figures.

In a statement, Israel’s military said it does “everything possible to avoid harming children,” charging that Hamas, the terror group that rules Gaza, “cynically uses Gaza residents, especially women and children, as human shields and places them at the forefront of the violent riots.”

Hamas openly seeks to destroy Israel, which has no military or civilian presence in Gaza.

In this September 12, 2018, photo, Amani al-Bilbisi sits outside her son Mohammed Khader’s room as he lays in bed in Gaza City. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

Hamas, which has orchestrated the demonstrations, denies such allegations. Hazem Qassem, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, said “there is no way to prevent the people from participating. There are entire families (who go) and there is no way to prevent them.”

Ever since the demonstrations began in March, children have been a constant presence among the surging crowds — some hurling stones with slingshots or burning tires, others merely watching from afar. While many are brought by parents who hold their hands and carry them on their shoulders, others make their way on their own.

Of the 175 Palestinians killed so far, at least 34 were 18 or under, according to an Associated Press count. Dozens of the dead were members of Hamas and other terror groups. Gaza’s Hamas-run Health Ministry says 2,295 minors have been hospitalized, 17 of whom have had a limb amputated; at least 5,124 people have been injured in all.

Young victims are not a new phenomenon in the region. In the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, that began in 1987, children and teens often threw stones at Israeli soldiers, who sometimes responded with live rounds. According to the left-wing Israeli rights group B’Tselem, minors comprised about 21 percent of deaths back then. In the latest protests, that percentage is roughly the same.

Hundreds of Israeli children, too, were killed in suicide bombings, shootings, and other kinds of attacks by Hamas and fellow Palestinian terror groups since that time.

The Israeli military, which deploys snipers atop pyramid-shaped bunkers positioned at regular intervals along the frontier, says it takes pains to avoid civilian casualties and only uses live fire as a last resort. But it also says it must defend against “terrorist” crowds hurling grenades and firebombs, and stop those who penetrate or damage the fence.

Amnesty International and other human rights groups argue that under international law, the use of live ammunition can only be justified in the face of imminent death or serious injury. Israel argues that is exactly what its forces — and Israeli civilians in towns and villages along the border — face if the protesters, and the Hamas operatives Israel says use the protests as cover for attacks, are allowed to rush the fence and enter Israel.

An Israeli soldier was killed by a Hamas sniper during a demonstration last July, and at least six have been wounded.

Video images circulating on social media, however, have also shown unarmed protesters being shot, including some struck while running away or waving the Palestinian flag, Amnesty International has said. One incident in September showed a 16-year-old boy being shot in the chest while waving his hands in the air; he had just hurled a stone toward the fence, but it’s unclear if it had even reached it.

In this September 10, 2018, photo, patients with leg injuries they sustained during demonstrations gather outside a clinic run by MSF (Doctors Without Borders) in Gaza City. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

After another teen was shot dead in April, UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov asked in a tweet: “How does the killing of a child in #Gaza today help #peace?” Mladenov answered his own question, saying “It doesn’t! It fuels anger and breeds more killing.”

According to Gazan officials, the protests have been fueled by desperate living conditions in Gaza, a place most residents are prohibited from leaving. In 2007, after Hamas took control of the territory in a bloody coup against the Palestinian Authority, Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on Gaza, arguing it was necessary to prevent Hamas from expanding its weapons arsenal and constructing attack tunnels into Israel. That blockade was joined last year by the Palestinian Authority, which has put a squeeze on salaries and other funds it delivers to Gazans in a bid to force Hamas to reconciliation talks with the West Bank-based PA. Over a decade after the start of the blockade, unemployment is over 50%, tap water has become largely undrinkable in many places and electricity is sporadic.

When the demonstrations began in March, Raed Abu Khader told his 12-year-old son Mohammed to stay away, and the boy promised he would. But on August 24, Khader received an urgent phone call from a friend: Mohammed had been shot in the leg at one of the demonstrations held that day.

“He shouldn’t have been there,” Abu Khader said of the boy, who has been unable to move his left leg since and fears it will be amputated. “But the Israelis should only be shooting to scare children off — not hit them.”

It’s unclear what Mohammed was doing when the shooting took place. Speaking in a wheelchair surrounded by friends on a Gaza street, he boasted that he had just hung a Palestinian flag on the fence when gunfire rang out. Later, lying in his darkened home with his distraught father looking on, the boy could not answer when asked where he was. Staring at the ground, his brown eyes welled with tears.

Abu Khader said the boy had been transported to the protest site via one of the Hamas-organized buses that park outside Gaza’s mosques every Friday. At the end of the ride was a spectacle that is consistently part-war, part-festival: cultural shows, corn on the cob, balloons and Palestinian kites laden with trails of flaming embers meant for Israeli farms. Plus the weekly confrontation itself: Palestinians armed with stones and firebombs taking shots at armed Israeli forces flying spider-like drones equipped with tear gas.

“They see their friends going, and they want to go,” Abu Khader said. “They think it’s a game. They think they’re going to have fun. They don’t know how dangerous it is.”

In this September 10, 2018, photo, Mahmoud Abu Assi, who was shot in the leg during a demonstration, has his bandage changed in a clinic run by Doctors Without Borders in Gaza City. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

The round that struck Mohammed Abu Khader severed the nerves in his leg so completely, he can neither feel nor move his limb at all. If he does not get out of Gaza, his 39-year-old father says, he will likely lose his leg.

Today, the boy often cries. He no longer goes to school. His father says the boy feels useless.

Mohammed al-Dalo, the boy whose father took him to the protest, has been similarly traumatized. His father said he is markedly quieter now.

And like Mohammed Abu Khader, his life may be changed forever.

At a clinic run by Doctors Without Borders, physiotherapist Eyad Abedelaal says Mohammed al-Dalo suffers from “foot drop.” Nerve damage means he cannot move his toes up and down; the boy limps when he walks.

They will try to perform another surgery to fix the problem. “But unfortunately, this kind of nerve damage will likely last forever,” Abedelaal said. “It means to walk correctly, he’ll probably need special shoes for the rest of his life.”

Mohammed’s father, Mazen al-Dalo, says the boy asked to go back to the protests, but he refused because he doesn’t want him to get hurt again.

Still, he has no regrets. “This is the tax you have to pay to achieve the right of return,” he said, referencing a deep-held Palestinian desire to reverse the results of the 1948 war and take the land on which Israel was created. “Nothing is free. We all have to sacrifice.”

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