The children of Gaza

From the moment you cross the border at Rafah you realise that there is something particularly striking about Gaza. It isn't the bombed out shells of what used to be peoples homes and places of work that struck you the hardest. It isn't even the sounds of the fighter jets flying overhead, or the Israeli gunfire in the bay preventing Palestinian fishermen from making a living in their own waters. It isn't the bullet holes that riddled the cities or the man made poverty and squalor that people were forced to live in. It isn't the hum of the spy drones overhead. It is the beauty of Gaza and the children of Palestine. By Cathal Óg Donnelly

Gaza has a very young population. Over 44 percent of the population are under the age of 14. As you take a look around you would be hard pressed to find a street that wasn't thronged with small children playing. The first thought that hits you is that Israel air strikes and bombs these streets and residential areas regularly. How many of these children die as a result of Israeli aggression? During the three week Israeli offensive in 2008, Operation Cast Lead, the Palestinian Ministry of health estimates that 431 children were killed as a result of the violence. That's roughly 20 children per day of the attacks.

We visited a small primary school that was situated next to a three story residential building that was destroyed by an Israeli rocket two weeks before we arrived. The children's smiles offered the warmest greeting one could receive. They were so happy to see us and jumped at the rare opportunity to practice their English with Europeans. Needless to say 60 children shouting their names at you all at once can be a lot to get your head around and if you're not good with names you have to shape up or ship out. The side of the school was riddled with shrapnel holes and the image of the children smiling and waving at you from a school balcony surrounded by bullet holes is an eye-opening experience. On leaving the school a young boy was presented to us. Two weeks before our arrival he and his little brother were walking to school when an Israeli rocket struck killing the boy's small brother. The boy met us with a smile. He had skipped out ahead of his younger brother before the rocket hit, saving his life.

In Gaza the power cuts caused by the Israeli siege affect everyone and everywhere from the streets of the refugee camps to the houses of government ministers forcing people to use candles or other primitive forms of lighting. A couple of days before we left three small children were burned to death in their bedroom, they were using the candle to do their homework, after they fell asleep the candle fell over starting the fire. We met the family of the children in their home. We stood in the burned out room in which they had died only two day before. As I looked at the ground where the charred remains of their homework lay I was struck with a great sense of grief and anger. The siege killed those beautiful little children. This event is not unique; the siege actively kills, injures and deprives people and children in particular of their dignity.

The children in Gaza endure immense suffering every day, being back in Ireland and seeing the kids play and laugh here, Gaza and the problems facing its people seem worlds away. Normality toys with you as if it was all a bad dream, but it's one the Palestinians cannot awaken from. The resilience of these children in the face of the hardships they live under serves as a beacon of hope not only for me, but also for the Palestinian people and cause. The smiles of the children of Palestine serve as the sign that the Palestinians will ever truly be defeated. Bobby Sands said, "Our revenge will be the laughter of our children". Hopefully one day we will hear that laughter in the streets of Al Quds in a free Palestine. {jathumbnailoff}

Photo courtesy of Charlie McMenamin