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15 August 2002 Edition

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Young Palestinians tell their story

Four young people from Ramallah in Palestine told the stories of their lives growing up under Israeli occupation, at a meeting in the Project Arts Centre in Dublin last Tuesday, 13 August, organised by the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Committee. They were stories to stir your heart to rage.

The students are a young people's delegation from Palestine, who came to take part in the Belfast Festival's Palestinian Day last week.

They told their stories, stories of displacement, of refugee camps, of curfews, of attacks on their homes by Apache helicopters, of the occupation of their own houses by Israeli military. They were the stories of tanks occupying their streets; of Israeli 'snipers' firing indiscriminately; of checkpoints to protect Israeli settlements, which had become 'killing points' through which schoolchildren had to pass.

They were the stories of fear, of brutality, of life with nothing, because the Israelis wanted to force the Palestinians out of their land. "What future do you see for yourselves?" someone asked. "I hope to see a future," 15-year-old Hanine Al-Khairi replied.

On Wednesday morning, the Palestinian delegation visited Leinster House, where they weer welcomed by Sinn Féin TD Aengus ó Snodaigh


Children without a childhood


Hanine Al-Khairi is fifteen-and-a-half and the 'half is very important' to her. This comment from her friends brings a broad smile to and brightens up a beautiful Palestinian face. A smile she says she 'doesn't feel from my heart'.

A surprising comment from one so young but not a surprise when you learn that four months ago she wrote out her will: "If they kill me give all my toys to the children of Jenin," she said. A child's mind at work in the middle of an invasion by the Israeli forces of her town, Ramallah, in the West Bank.

She has never felt she was a child or played like a child or had a childhood. Her friends also spoke about the absence of a childhood: 17-year-old Mohammad Abed Rabbo, Gineen Abu Rokti (16), and Maisa' Al-Natsheh (21). The four Palestinians were on a ten-day tour of Ireland as guests of the Ireland - Palestinian Solidarity Group. They spent most of their time in Belfast and took part in the West Belfast Féile.

The cycle of life for children and young teenagers in occupied Palestine isn't discussing the latest music or video games; the latest fashion; the latest boyfriend or girlfriend. They never go to dances or gather in small groups at the corner of the street to chat, as teenagers do the world over. Wedding parties have stopped and they are prevented from gathering to pray at the Mosque on Fridays and Christians aren't permitted by the Israeli military from praying on Sundays.

The children can't play in the street because of the constant patrolling by the tanks and the regular gunfire. They can't sleep at night because of heightened levels of anxiety brought on by the military occupation and curfews.

Their school life has been disrupted, "because we were expecting the invasion at anytime", said Gineen. Her school is now an Israeli military base. Their childhood memories are full of death and hatred for the Israeli forces.

Mohammad said: "Every day there is a killing; there are always demonstrations and marches. In each family you can find someone killed or detained. We can't sing and dance while all these terrible things are happening. These are the things young people talk about."

The everyday cultural expressions of the Palestinian people are on hold because of the military occupation.

Maisa', a third level student studying finance, is also a drama teacher. She is a guardian for ten children aged between six and thirteen She uses drama to help the children express their innermost feelings and emotions. Most of the plays have a violent theme to them.

She said the children think she is an angel and through her they send letters to God asking why they are being treated so badly. They have also sent letters to Ariel Sharon and George Bush asking them the same questions.

The quality of life for all the Palestinian people is dire. Most of the people rely on the Palestinian Authority or one of the food agencies or human rights organisations for sustenance.

There is no welfare state or health care system. There is no independent source of money coming into people's homes. Many people don't have bread to eat, while others have very little furniture in their homes.

The Israelis control the supply of electricity and water to the people on the West Bank and Gaza strip. They very often cut off the supply - leaving people to make do in any way they can. The people use pots and pans to gather water when it rains. Rainwater is then rationed to wash and cook.

Israeli soldiers have checkpoints dotted all over Ramallah and other towns. Travelling on foot is impossible; journeys that should take a few minutes can take several hours. It took Hanine seven hours to travel from Ramallah to Jerusalem, a distance of 12-15 kilometres. On their way to Ireland it took the group four days to travel from Ramallah to Jericho over mountainous terrain and back roads.

It's not uncommon for children to be born at checkpoints or for people to die there because the Israeli soldiers refuse to allow them to travel to the nearest hospital.

During one of the recent curfews, Maisa' spent ten days in a hotel under lock and key. The hotel was five minutes walk away from her own home. The Israelis refused her permission to walk the short distance.

Mohammad's father is 42 years old. Mohammad is going through exactly what his father and his grandfather went through when they were 17. One of his uncles was in prison and his grandfather and another uncle lived in a cave near Hebron during the Six-Day war in 1967.

He has two brothers and one sister. During the recent invasion, the Israelis occupied his house and turned it into a military camp. The family were forced to live in one room.

Hanine was one day old when her father was put in prison for ten years. She didn't see him for six years and then only in a photograph in a newspaper when her brother pointed him out to her. An Israeli tank shell demolished her home in April.

Parents do their best for their children but Hanine said: "How can they protect us when they can't protect themselves?"

Living in exile, living as refugees in the camps, living as stateless people in their own country, is the lot for these Palestinian youths. They grew up as their families were forced to flee from one country to another: Beirut, Jordan, Qatar, Tunisia and Syria.

Although they recount harrowing tales of life and death under Israeli occupation and you can see clearly that their emotions have been badly affected, these young people are great ambassadors for the Palestinian cause.

I got the distinct impression, despite all the difficulties they described, that the Palestinian people will ensure that Mohammad's children will not have to experience what his father and grandfather experienced.


An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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