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Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Palestinian children flirt with death

JABALIYA REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip -- He defied the orders of his father and the pleas of his friends and walked a few blocks from his home to watch Palestinian militants fight Israeli soldiers.

Hours later, Mohammed al-Najar, 12, was dead, one side of his face sheared off by a tank shell fired at combatants during one of the fiercest battles of the weeklong Israeli incursion here.

The boy died last week doing what many children do when the shooting starts -- he rushed to the masked gunmen, excited by the action, the noise, the danger.

Israeli army commanders complain that militants use the boys as human shields, but the children often run to the gunmen on their own, against the orders of their parents -- a result of what many here say is a breakdown in the traditional authority of the Palestinian family.

'Some people would say he is a hero, a martyr,' says Mohammed's friend Hamza Khalid, 14. 'Some people would say that his father did not take care of him.'

At least 88 Palestinians have been killed since last week in this Israeli offensive in northern Gaza. Human rights groups say at least half of those killed were civilians and at least 18 were 16 years old or younger.

While those youngsters were apparently innocent bystanders, some battle the Israelis and others venture near to see the fighting. Experts say the adolescents are attracted to risky adventures and enthralled by a culture that embraces martyrdom.