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Impact of Conflict on the Youngest Palestinians - 2001-10-03

Palestinian children are said to be deeply troubled by more than a year of fighting with Israel. A new study of Palestinian children shows most of those asked dream about the bloody conflict, and some even dream about becoming suicide bombers and hoping to kill themselves and as many Israelis as possible.

It is late afternoon in the Aida refugee camp in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Hundreds of Palestinian children, smartly dressed in their school uniforms, walk down the dusty, narrow alleyways toward home.

The walls of their school are pockmarked with bullet holes because, the Israeli army says, it is a place where Palestinian gunmen like to take cover during clashes with the Israelis.

Some children, mostly young boys, sneak through the back wall of the camp, past a cemetery with fresh graves, to throw stones at Israeli soldiers guarding Rachel's Tomb, a Jewish holy site, nearby. The rock throwing goes on for hours and happens nearly every day. Sometimes the soldiers respond by firing tear gas or bullets at the protesters.

Manar Alameer, 12, watches the clashes from her window. On many nights, she says she dreams of dying for the Palestinian cause. When she hears that there are clashes she wants to go inside the clashes because she wants to be a martyr. She feels like this because "it is a big honor for us to be a martyr".

A new study of Palestinian children conducted by a Palestinian psychologist reveals that most of them dream repeatedly about the violent conflict with Israel. Their sleep, he found, is disturbed by bloody scenes involving Israeli combat helicopters, tanks and soldiers. For instance, the study says one Palestinian boy dreams he is decapitated by an Israeli missile as he walks home from school. An 11-year-old girl dreams she detonates a bomb strapped to her body at an outdoor market, killing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

These are some of the findings of Dr. Shafiq Masalha, a Palestinian clinical psychologist who studied the dreams of 150 Palestinian children since the outbreak of the "intifada," or uprising, more than a year ago.

Dr. Masalha says nearly 80 percent of the Palestinian children he surveyed dream about the conflict, and 15 percent dream of dying as martyrs. "This material is very troubling, I believe. It is troubling for the Palestinians themselves, for the kids and for the Israelis, and now, after we are witnessing such terrible events in other places in the world, I believe this is real trouble for the whole world. That we are raising children who are only 10 years old and thinking that they want to kill themselves and sometimes to kill others," he says.

At the Aida refugee camp, as well as many other places in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinian children frequently participate in clashes with Israeli troops. One young boy leans up against a wall, his head covered with a bandage because, he says he was shot in the head the day before by Israeli soldiers. Khadija Bdeer, 12, says she dreams about Israeli soldiers bursting into her home and killing her. She wants very much to be a martyr. She keeps telling her family and her friends she wants to be a martyr.

Dr. Masalha says the trauma of daily life for Palestinian children, especially those living in the squalor of refugee camps, is reflected in their dreams.

He says he finds it very disturbing that not one child in his survey reported dreaming anything positive about Israelis. "So these kids who are living in these terrifying circumstances, terrifying daily events, so what can we expect from them?" he asks. "What feelings, what thoughts would they think, except thinking that life is not worth living and maybe death is a way out from these terrible circumstances."

As night falls over the Aida refugee camp the call for prayer, occasionally punctuated by gunfire, wafts over the unpaved streets.

Young people, living anything but an innocent childhood, go to sleep. Many may wake up by the noise of the fighting outside their homes, while others are awakened by nightmares about the violent world around them.