Jenin, occupied West Bank – The teenagers did not hesitate when asked what they aspired to be when they grew up. “Martyrs,” they said in unison, referring to the term used by Palestinians to describe anyone killed by Israelis.
But when asked what they would like to become if they were not living under Israeli occupation, a shy silence settled on the tiny living room of an apartment in the Jenin refugee camp where the seven friends, aged 14 to 18, were gathered. They had no answer.
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Instead, they started to recount how they had helped Palestinian fighters respond to a major Israeli raid last week in which about 1,000 soldiers in armoured vehicles and backed by drones and missiles stormed the camp. Some said they had spied on Israeli positions and carried messages. Others made Molotov cocktails. All of them said they played their part.
“We are not afraid. We are used to this,” 17-year-old Araf said.
His comments reflect a belief among many young people in Jenin that fighting the occupation is their main purpose in life. Faced with a lack of prospects for the future, in the eyes of young people here, resistance is the only way to confront a reality in which Israeli soldiers breach their homes, arrest their parents, and even kill their friends or relatives.
This, mental health experts said, means death often becomes an all-too-real scenario.
“The youth look at the destiny of those around them. They know that it is probable that they will be in a confrontation with the army and that they might die,” said Samah Jabr, who heads the Palestinian Authority’s mental health department. “It’s part of the reality surrounding us. Not a single day passes without hearing of a new victim.”
‘Shaking, not eating’
The Jenin refugee camp is home to 14,000 people living on less than half a square kilometre. It has one of the highest unemployment and poverty rates across all refugee sites in the occupied West Bank, United Nations figures show.
Abu al-Ezz, a 32-year-old former gym trainer who gave only his nickname, said his childhood memories are full of him and his friends confronting Israeli troops raiding the camp. It has led him to where he is today – fighting Israeli forces.
“Since we were little kids,” he recalled, “when we would see a [military] tank, we used to jump on it, try to somehow ruin it or throw cans of paint or oil.” But it was the killing of a close friend by an Israeli soldier a decade ago that made Abu al-Ezz decide to take up arms against Israel.
“My life would have been simple … [but] his death affected me a lot,” said Abu al-Ezz, who is now a member of the Jenin Brigades, an armed group that carries out attacks on Israeli checkpoints and engages in armed confrontations during Israeli army raids.
“There is no way Israel will leave us with any choice except that of armed resistance,” he said.
That spirit is evident across Jenin, a city that has become a symbol of Palestinian defiance. Its refugee camp is a warren of tight alleyways and dilapidated buildings adorned with banners bearing the portraits of “martyrs”.
Israel does not see it the way Abu al-Ezz does. Last week, the government said it wanted to wipe out “terrorists” as it launched its largest military offensive on the camp in decades. Twelve Palestinians, including three children, were killed. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the ground and aerial operation a success and said more were to come.
For residents, the 48-hour attack was yet another traumatic experience. They described how Israeli soldiers pointed guns at them while tearing down the walls of their houses to tunnel through apartments and hide their movements from resistance fighters. Some were handcuffed for hours as Israeli troops used their homes as bases for attacks.
Manassa al-Khabir said her seven-year-old daughter, Mila, “has been shaking since. … She’s not eating at all and keeps looking at the window to see if there are snipers.”
“She keeps asking if they’re about to come back,” al-Khabir said.
Children arrested and beaten
Up to 1,000 Palestinian children are arrested by Israeli forces each year, according to a report this week by Save the Children. Many of the arrests are for throwing stones, for which they can be jailed up to 20 years.
It found that 86 percent of them are beaten at some point and 69 percent are strip-searched. Nearly half are hurt when arrested, including gunshot wounds and broken bones.
“They are the only children in the world to experience systematic prosecution in military courts,” said Jason Lee, Save the Children’s country director in the occupied Palestinian territory.
“There’s simply no justification for beating and stripping children, treating them like animals or robbing them of their future.”
Sense of self
Mental health experts and educators say it is important to give frustrated youth a sense of who they are as individuals to instill hope and gradually lead them away from despair.
Mustafa Sheta is the director of Freedom Theatre, which uses art to empower Palestinian youth in the Jenin refugee camp and encourage creative expression as a method of dealing with the hardship of daily life under occupation.
“We focus on pushing them to consider ‘Who am I? And what benefit can I bring?’” Sheta said, “because the decision to be martyrs stems from how little they value their life.”
Teachers say the challenge is often to keep children busy outside class and away from the violence surrounding them.
“We try to tell them about the future, about being mothers, doctors, engineers – to make them understand they can have a role [in society],” said Uhmud Ahmad, a teacher at a school run by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.
But reality often snaps back.
In a classroom on the first floor of one of the UN-run schools, a group of girls gather around an empty desk with a red rose on it. Next to the rose is a picture of Sadil, one of their classmates who was shot dead by an Israeli sniper two weeks before the latest raid.
“How can I imagine what I will be in 10 years when I am not sure I will wake up tomorrow?” asked Salma Firaz, 15, sitting at the desk next to Sadil’s.