Leave Our Kids Alone

Last month's call by "official" and "radical" Palestinian groups for a ban on suicide bombings and other military operations by children could prove to be the first nail in the coffin of the al-Aqsa Intifada, and even of Yasser Arafat's corrupt regime.

The call -- buried by U.S. media within reports of Israel's apparent decision to release Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from his Ramallah compound -- arose from the criticism of a Gaza family whose 14-year-old son was killed trying to penetrate a Jewish settlement near his home. Yusuf Zaqout was shot by Israeli soldiers as he approached the community of Netzarim, and the family has demanded an investigation into the matter, asking if their son was "coerced into a foolhardy mission."

The family did not seem to object to suicide bombs in principle or to the killing of civilians -- only that their son was used as fodder for a failed mission. Still, for the first time in memory a family has stood up to the terror organizations that rule the Palestinian Authority. Certainly it is the first time the charges have been strong enough to put the terrorist groups on the defensive.

For any Palestinian organization to issue such a call reeks of cynicism. The use of children and civilians as defensive shields by the various Palestinian Authority security forces, as well as rejectionist factions like Hamas and Arafat's own Fatah, has been well documented throughout the 19-month-old uprising. All factions continue to sing the praises of "martyrs" who embark on the ultimate sacrifice for Palestine, and suicide bombers continue to enjoy hero status on the Palestinian street. Their actions are given the honor all children aspire to.

In short, years of Palestinian officialdom have created a culture in which parents rejoice at the deaths of their kamikaze offspring, terrorists are hailed as martyrs and children are encouraged to "get out there" to support the cause. Now, at the first sign of bad PR, these groups are rethinking their strategy.

Indeed, the use of civilians and children has allowed the al-Aqsa Intifada -- named after a mosque on the Temple Mount that Sharon visited, supposedly sparking the current Intifada -- to continue as long as it has. Palestinian policemen have long used the rooftops of civilian homes in the Christian town of Beit Jala to fire into the homes of Jerusalem's Gilo neighborhood, knowing that Israel would withhold its full firepower from the densely populated town. Similarly, many West Bank schools have been the focal points of shooting attacks on Israeli soldiers and Jewish drivers. Palestinian gunmen know that while Israel will return some fire, it isn't likely to stage a full-scale invasion of an elementary school.

But ordinary Palestinians starting to speak out is a positive sign. Families like that of Yusuf Zaqout have paid dearly, not only for the al-Aqsa Intifada, but for a decade of Palestinian Authority corruption. They are the ones who get shut out of their jobs when terror attacks force Israel to close its borders. They are the ones who have lost sons and homes and businesses to two Intifadas.

Now that Arafat will be free to travel, Palestinians would be wise to keep pressure on him and his henchmen to leave their children alone. Could the family of Yusuf Zaqout have inadvertently planted the seeds of a bona fide Palestinian revolution? Perhaps thousands of ordinary Palestinians, whose lives have been ruined, not just by the Intifada, but by the Palestinian Authority itself, will turn out to "greet" Arafat as he travels the cities of the West Bank and demand the stolen fruits of Oslo. Perhaps the previously censored press will break ranks with unwritten PA rules, with editorials entitled "Leave Our Children Alone."

Should Yasser Arafat's Ramallah compound become surrounded by mobs of angry Palestinians calling for his head, as angry Romanians did for dictator Nicolai Ceaucescu more than a decade ago, Arafat will wish the Israeli Defense Forces had never let him go.

With Palestinian officials on the defensive, ordinary Palestinians have a rare chance to reclaim their lives, their economy and their government. Should they choose to capitalize, the current situation could be a first glimmer of light for Palestinian society, and, by extension, for the entire Middle East.

Andrew Friedman (andye_friedman@hotmail.com) is a freelance writer based in Melbourne, Australia, who spent 10 years living and working in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

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