By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA, Sept 20 (Reuters) – Ramadan is bringing little cheer to the Palestinian youth of Gaza this year.
In years past, Ramadan meant ice-cream, toys and game-playing for youngsters after a day of fasting and worship. Shops were filled with dates, sweets and holiday food.
Such luxuries are now distant memories for most Palestinians in the territory. Coloured Ramadan lanterns are no longer stocked by shops who know people cannot afford them.
Western aid sanctions imposed after the Islamic militant group Hamas came to power in a January election have deepened economic hardship among the area’s 1.4 million people, already hit hard by six years of fighting with Israel.
The holiday will be a time of reflection in Gaza where confrontation with Israel has become a rite of passage for many youngsters.
Naser al-Rizi was 16 with hopes of becoming a physical education teacher when the Palestinian uprising began in 2000.
Joining a crowd throwing rocks at Israeli troops guarding a Jewish settlement, he was shot in the back and lost the use of his legs.
Rizi says he has no regrets.
"Even today, I hope I could recover, I hope or I dream, name it whatever you like, in order to go back and confront the Israeli forces and die as a martyr," said Rizi, who has resumed his high school studies and wants to become a science teacher.
Rizi said the scenes of violence often have a magnetic appeal for young people in Gaza which lacks places of entertainment.
"When there is an Israeli raid or when somebody is killed the whole situation gets grim, and children who are supposed to be studying or playing find themselves face to face with the Israeli soldiers," the wheelchair-bound young man said.
Israeli troops and settlers quit the Gaza Strip in 2005, after 38 years of occupation, but the army launched a ground offensive in June after Palestinian militants abducted a soldier in a cross-border raid.
At least 210 Palestinians, about half of them civilians, have been killed during the offensive, which Israel says is also designed to stop militants firing makeshift rockets into the Jewish state. Hamdi Shaqoura of the the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights said the dead included 50 children.
"I really hope to die as a martyr in Ramadan — to meet God," said Mohammad, a member of the militant al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades belonging to President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement.
Mohammad was a 15-year-old stone-thrower when the uprising began. He has now become the kind of fighter he long wished to be.
"I used to look at the masked armed Shabab (young men), and hoped I would join them one day," he told Reuters, clutching an AK-47 assault rifle.
Militant groups say they discourage children under the age of 18 from taking part in armed attacks against Israelis.
But some suicide bombings have been carried out by youngsters and Israel says militants use children to smuggle explosives past checkpoints and monitor troop movements.
Hamas gunman Mohammad Farhat was 17 when he raided the settlement of Atzmona in the southern Gaza Strip. He killed five Israelis before he was shot dead and became a heroic symbol to many of Gaza’s children.
Palestinian psychologists say scenes of Israeli violence shown by Arab television networks have spurred children in Gaza to get involved in the fighting.
Israel says anti-Israeli texts long taught in Palestinian schools fan the flames of hatred.
In 2002, five Palestinian boys — some carrying small knives and others unarmed — were killed when they approached Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.
Some of them left their families a note saying they wanted to die as "martyrs" to avenge the killing of Palestinians in fighting between Israeli soldiers and militants in the West Bank city of Jenin that year.
Mohammed al-Durra, a Palestinian boy killed by gunfire near the former settlement of Netzarim in disputed circumstances, has also become a symbol of resistance for many Gaza youths.