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Israel-OPT: UN child rights expert criticises Palestinians and Israel

JERUSALEM, 20 April 2007 (IRIN) - Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, talked to children in the Askar refugee camp near the West Bank city of Nablus and the Israeli town of Sderot, which has been battered by missiles fired from the nearby Gaza Strip.

She described the humanitarian impact of Israel's West Bank barrier on Palestinian children as unconscionable and said the Palestinian Authority

(PA) needed to do more to stop youngsters getting involved with the armed factions.

"I found the situation worse than I expected. I spent time with the children and I was struck by their sense of hopelessness and despair. I have been in other regions where the conflict has been terrible but the children were more resilient and playful. Here they were less so, particularly in the Palestinian refugee camps," she said.

Some 1,045 children have been killed in the conflict since 2000, 927 of them Palestinian and 118 Israeli, according to the group Remember the Children.

Coomaraswamy said she had raised the issue of Israel's controversial West Bank barrier with the Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni

The 703 km barrier makes access to education and health services difficult for many Palestinian children because they have to make much longer journeys through new checkpoints where they may be denied passage by Israeli soldiers.

"I recognise that Israel has very legitimate security concerns. But I still think the humanitarian consequences of this barrier are such that it is unconscionable," said Coomaraswamy.

She suggested Israel set up an independent commission to look at the barrier's route and the complicated permit structure relating to it.

"The fence was constructed in order to protect the lives of civilians. Every centimetre was examined by the Israeli courts, whose international reputation is untarnished. In my opinion, there were several instances where the court had to lend its weight to security issues while taking into account the civilian quality of life," said Livni.

Coomaraswamy also said Israel's prison sentences given to Palestinian children were feeding the cycle of violence.

Some 398 Palestinian children are being held in Israeli jails. Both Palestinian and Israeli children are deemed responsible for any crimes they may commit once they have reached the age of 12, which is lower than in many other countries.

"Children are getting very hard and bitter through this experience," she said.

She suggested children be tried by judicial rather than military courts, which tend to give more lenient sentences.

Coomaraswamy met with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and said the PA had to ensure a 2003 agreement not to use children for violence was respected by all the armed factions.

"There is mobilisation of children and minors for political violence. The children spoke openly about being involved and there wasn't a sense that it was wrong. It is a serious issue for the PA," she said.

But she said both sides were keen to revive the tripartite commission, a joint body that examines school textbooks. In particular, Palestinian schoolbooks have been said by Israel to incite Palestinian children to hate Israel.

And Coomaraswamy urged both sides to respect international humanitarian law by distinguishing between military and civilian targets, and by not using disproportionate force.

"The terrorist organisations deliberately target civilians and children, while IDF (Israel Defence Forces) troops, in combat against terrorists hiding amongst a civilian population, go to extreme lengths to prevent any harm to civilians and children," said Livni.

Despite their trauma and vengeful feelings, both Palestinian and Israeli children want peace, Coomaraswamy said.

"I hope that the voices of the children will be heard and we will move towards peace," she said.

Coomaraswamy was unable to travel to the Gaza Strip but had a two-hour talk with Gazan children via videolink.