They arrived in their dozens as soon as school was out, threw their satchels in a pile, wrapped kefiyehs around their heads, armed themselves with stones and catapults and began launching waves of attacks on Israeli soldiers stationed just across the Gaza border.
School was over, it was Intifada time.
This was back in October 2000, just days after the second Intifada (Palestinian uprising) had erupted.
The afternoon protests were led by the children – mainly boys but also some girls. Towards evening, when the mood had darkened and teargas was hanging angrily in the air, the adults took over. Lethal firefights broke out between Palestinian militants and Israeli troops.
By the end of the evening, several Palestinian men and a few children lay dead. They would be buried the next day after highly emotional funerals that once again stoked the passions and brought out the schoolchildren and later the militants. The cycle of hatred, frustration, anger and confrontation would start all over again.
Today, 18 years later, the Gaza blockade remains in place and the Palestinian resistance continues. If anything, the frustration levels in the narrow coastal strip are higher than ever, the anger is still seething, the violence just as intense.
Since March protests in Gaza have continued unabated under the slogan “Great Return March” – in support of demands that Palestinian refugees and their descendants be allowed to return to Israel. The launch of the campaign coincided with the moving of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, further stoking Palestinian anger.
So, the children along with the adults are back at the barbed wire perimeter fences, throwing stones and molotovs and rolling burning tyres towards the Israeli soldiers. Some arrive armed with wire-cutters and attempt to break through the fences.
Sooner or later, the situation escalates, shots are fired and Palestinians lie dead.
According to the UN agency in Gaza OCHA, 146 Palestinians were killed between March 30, when the Great March protests began, and July 12 (their latest casualty update is still to come) -- 124 men, one woman, 20 boys and one girl. In this same period, no Israelis died although four were injured.
But the question remains: Why do Palestinians let their children take part in what are after all acts of violent warfare?
The answer in part is that they can’t stop them. They are mostly headstrong teenagers out for action and driven by the belief that it is their duty to fight the Israelis.
Israelis more cynically say that parents don’t WANT to stop them. Being killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers not only brings repute to one’s family but it also ensures that one’s loved ones receive a monthly stipend of about $350 from the Palestinian Authority’s Martyr’s Fund.
In the stark conditions that exist in the overcrowded Gaza Strip, where families are large and dirt poor and where unemployment is running at 27 per cent (60 percent in the age category 15-29), $350 a month can in some instances make all the difference between malnutrition and chronic malnutrition.
The Martyr’s Fund, described by critics as "pay for slay", has been slammed by Israel, which says it “glorifies terrorism” and offers an “incentive for murder”. The US, meanwhile, has cut off part of its funding to the PA over the stipend issue.
Palestinian leaders defend the stipends paid to families of “martyrs” as well as to Palestinians being held in Israeli jails, as part of the movement’s “social responsibility”. But it is unlikely that, for children in any case, dying simply for the sake of the money would be incentive enough.
Anne Speckhard, Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine at Georgetown University, puts the readiness to die for the cause down to a “cult of martyrdom” in the Palestinian Territories.
“From a very young age, children are socialised into a group consciousness that honours “martyrs”, including human bombers who have given their lives for the fight against what is perceived by Palestinians to be the unjust occupation of their lands. Young children are told stories of “martyrs.” Many young people wear necklaces venerating particular ‘martyrs’,” Speckhard wrote in a paper entitled Understanding Suicide Terrorism: Countering Human Bombs and Their Senders.
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The Guardian newspaper in May interviewed the mother of 14-year-old Wesal Sheikh Khalil who was shot dead while protesting at the Gaza border – presumably OCHA’s “one girl” casualty. “She thought death was better than this life,” said Reem Abu Irmana of her daughter. “Every time she went to the demonstrations she prayed to God that she would be martyred.”
We will never know if Wesal’s determination to become a “martyr” was in any way influenced by the knowledge that her family would be rewarded if she was killed by Israeli forces.
All we know from the girl’s mother was that Wesal had been inspired by the protest marches and had started to think intensely about “martyrdom”.
She did make it clear to her mother, however, that should she die she wanted to be buried next to her beloved grandfather. The fragile human face of the young political activist.
Dying, no matter what religious spin you put on it, is, after all, a very lonely affair.