"Palestinian children have lost all sense of normality. They don't know whether they'll be able to go to school, whether they'll come home safely because of curfews and army incursions," Yoad Ghanadreh told reporters during a visit to a Qalandiya community centre managed by the UN agency for refugees (UNRWA).

"They often suffer from psychosomatic troubles, depression and low concentration that are related to their fear of the present and the future," she said amid boys and girls, most sporting brightly painted faces, celebrating International Children's Day.

Ghanadreh, who oversees all of UNRWA's psychological support programmes in 95 schools, 30 clinics and 105 community centres on the West Bank, said the agency had to step up counselling as a result of the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, which began in September 2000.

"Violence outside has become a reference. It's part of our lives and reproduced by children at school and at home," she said, adding that the number of stone-throwing children had gone down with the "militarisation" of the intifada.

Fear and anxiety
 
"We originally thought that children's participation in non-armed demonstrations was empowering but research later showed it was bad for them because it is violent," she said.

In a survey on its schools, UNRWA found
a 20% rate of hypertension symptoms, 16% low achievement rate and an 11.5% rate of fear and anxiety

Fresh statistics released by UN agencies on Tuesday showed that more than 670 children have been killed in the past four years of the conflict - of which 573 were Palestinian and 105 Israelis.

Close to 2000 Palestinian children have been arrested, interrogated and detained, with 337 currently in jail. Nearly 1500 school days were lost and pass rates in UNRWA-run schools sharply declined in 2003/2004.
 
In a survey on its schools, UNRWA found a 20% rate of hypertension symptoms, a 16% low achievement rate and a 11.5% rate of fear and anxiety.

Curfew pains

Yet, the study concluded that most children display high levels of optimism and resilience.

Palestinian youths use stones as
weapons against Israeli soldiers

On the community centre playground, 13-year-old Rana said she hoped there would soon be peace.

"Sometimes we can't go to school because of curfews. Sometimes, soldiers will raid Qalandiya and Ram Allah and we'll be stuck inside the classroom," she said.

"They're dangerous; they kill and injure," she said of Israeli occupation troops.

Marwa, 13, said she hated the eight-metre wall being built at Qalandiya's entrance and which, once completed, will separate this West Bank community from Jerusalem.

"It's tall and ugly. Once there is peace, we will destroy it," she said.

In a bid to prevent would-be Palestinian resistance fighters, Israel is erecting a controversial separation barrier around the West Bank, which Palestinians and international rights activists brand as an "apartheid wall" and slam for annexing their land.

Dark pictures

In the centre's main room, dozens of children were kneeling down to paint on sheets of paper scattered on the ground.

The children are aware of the
struggle for freedom 

"It's the Palestinian flag because I want to free my people," said Musa, 13, applying himself to fill in a black-and-white sketch with the flag's red and green colours.
 
Amir, seven, explained the elusive shape he drew was an Israeli military vehicle. "I see them, the tanks, the planes and the Jeeps," he said.

Splattering black paint on the shapeless armour he first drew in red, Amir said it was "because they are dark".

"Children use black and grey colours a lot as if that was the only thing coming out of them. They tend to draw weaponry and armour," said Dawlat Siam, a social worker.

"Our goal is to make them forget the occupation. Progressively, they will draw happier things in bright colours," she added.