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For Hire: The Boy Human Shields In Gaza’s Most Desperate Town


Khan Yunis. Every day Usama Khalid jumps into a car or taxi queuing at an Israeli checkpoint, travels 300 yards, and gets one shekel for the trip. The 11-year-old Palestinian is an officially sanctioned human shield.


 


For the Israeli troops who squint out of a watchtower above the road, the boy’s presence is taken as proof that a suicide bomber is not at the wheel of the car passing beneath them. Cars with a lone occupant will be immediately fired upon, according to an Israeli warning.


 


So drivers give boys like Usama the equivalent of 14p for the short journey. A gang of boys presses round the waiting cars and although Usama often works 15 hours a day, he usually earns only about seven to 10 shekels.


 


“Older boys often push us away so that they can ride. Sometimes they bully us to hand over our takings,” he said as we drove him to his miserable-looking home of concrete blocks, topped by corrugated iron, where he lives with his parents and six younger siblings in the sand-blown outskirts of Khan Yunis.


 


As Israel announced a complete ban on Palestinian travel in most of the West Bank and tanks sealed off part of the Gaza Strip, in retaliation for the Palestinian attacks that killed 13 people in 24 hours, no part of Gaza was as wretched as its southern tip.


 


When large numbers of Palestinians could still work in Israel, Khan Yunis had fewer people in work there as it was furthest from Israel‘s main cities. Now Israel has stopped most Palestinians coming in, distance still plagues the town.


 


Several Israeli checkpoints cut the main road north and there are frequent unexplained closures, leaving hospitals without guaranteed supplies of drugs, ambulances delayed, and women in labour sometimes in crisis. Israeli tanks yesterday blocked the crossings south into Egypt.


 


The closures mean that one in 10 children under the age of five suffers from acute malnutrition, putting Gaza on a par with Nigeria and Chad, according to an assessment funded by the US Agency for International Development published yesterday.


 


In 2000 only one in 40 children under five in the West Bank and Gaza was acutely malnourished, the survey, conducted by Johns Hopkins University in the US and al-Quds University in Jerusalem, found.


 


The stretch of road where Usama touts himself as a human shield goes under a new bridge connecting Israel with the beachfront Jewish settlement of Qatif.


 


 


On one side of the road 10ft-high concrete slabs screen the new highway which Israelis alone can use. On the other side the bridge’s approaches are protected by coils of razorwire and a slope of sand which is raked regularly to make suspicious nocturnal footprints easy to detect. The air conditioned cars of Israeli settlers swish over the bridge to their seaside outpost above the battered orange Mercedes taxis of impoverished Palestinians.


 


Donkey-carts are almost as common as private cars in this part of Gaza and most vehicles are taxis.


 


“Usama is our only breadwinner”, says Mirvat Khalid, his mother. The bright-eyed child is as thin as a rake. “I had bread and tea for breakfast, and bread and a piece of tomato and cucumber in the evening,” he says. The extra-white marks on his front teeth are a sign of vitamin deficiency.


 


“People are giving up meat and fruit,” reports Dr Abdul Ati al-Muzayen, a senior obstetrician at the Nasser hospital in Khan Yunis. Just under half of the area’s women of child-bearing age suffer from anaemia which is caused by deficiencies in diet, according to the USAID-funded survey. It notes shortages of fish, chickens, and dairy produce.


 


“This gives rise to an abnormally high incidence of premature births and lack of breast-milk,” says Dr al-Muzayen. The survey found that due to border closures, half the wholesalers were short of powdered milk.


 


Nearby Israeli settlements have put the desert under giant hothouses at the expense of fresh water for Khan Yunis. “We have had no water for three days in parts of the city, and when it comes it’s not fit for drinking,” says Dr al-Muzayen.


 


Khan Yunis has four small UN-funded filtration plants where fresh water is available. But getting water from them is hard work. In a modern city of


three- and four-storey buildings, teenage boys queue with plastic cans at the equivalent of village pumps to take water home.


 


“People have a feeling of hopelessness,” says Dr Eyad Zarqut, who heads the crisis intervention team at Gaza‘s community mental health programme. “There is no escape.”


 


 


 


 


 

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