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Palestinian armed groups should immediately end all use of children in military attacks, Human Rights Watch said today, following a Tel Aviv suicide bombing by a 16-year-old that killed three Israeli civilians Monday.

Most Palestinian armed groups claim to disavow the use of children in military activities, but at least 10 children have carried out suicide attacks in Israel and the Occupied Territories since October 2000. Monday’s attack was the second suicide bombing by a child linked to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. A previous attack by a 17-year-old in Netanya in May 2002 was also linked to the group.

“Any attack on civilians is prohibited by international law, but using children for suicide attacks is particularly egregious,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Palestinian armed groups must clearly and publicly condemn all use of children under the age of 18 for military activities, and make sure these policies are carried out.”

Major Palestinian armed groups, including Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Islamic Jihad, and Hamas, have publicly disavowed the use of children in military operations, but those stated policies have not always been implemented. Some leaders, including representatives of Islamic Jihad and Hamas, have said that they consider children of 16 to be adults. International law defines a child as any person under the age of eighteen.

Human Rights Watch said that the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade has been implicated in at least four suicide bombings by children. These include bombings by 17-year-old Ayat al-Akhras in Jerusalem in March 2002; 17-year-old Issa Abedrabbu Ibrahim Badir in Rishon Lezion in May 2002; 16-year-old Sabih Abu al-Saoud in March 2003 and 17-year-old Islam Qteishat in Rosh Ha’ayin in August 2003.

Islamic Jihad has been linked to at least three suicide bombings by children, including attacks by 17-year-old Safwat Abdel Rahman in Tel-Aviv in January 2002, 17-year-old Hamza Aref Samudi near Mejiddo junction in June 2002; and 17-year-old Iyad al-Masri in January 2004. Hamas has also been implicated in attacks carried out by children. In August 2003, 17-year-old Khamis Gerwan carried out a suicide bombing near Ariel, an illegal West Bank settlement.

An international treaty now ratified by 86 countries prohibits both governments and non-state armed groups from using children under 18 in armed conflict. Israel has signed – but not ratified – the treaty, known as the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict.

Human Rights Watch called on the government of Israel to ratify the protocol as soon as possible and called on both the Israeli government and Palestinian armed groups to recognize as minors all those under the age of 18. Israeli government policy in the Occupied Territories defines Palestinians under the age of 16 as minors while Israeli children in the same territories are considered minors until they reach the age of 18.

Human Rights Watch further called on Israel to take effective measures to protect the lives of all civilians, particularly children. During the October incursions of the Israeli army into Gaza one quarter of the more than 130 Palestinians killed were aged 18 years and under.

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