Al-Ahram Weekly Online
Gaza's suffering children
The Israeli occupation and its relentless attacks destroy the mental health and lives of children of Gaza, writes Saleh Al-Naami
Every once in a while Ibrahim Hawash, 42, calls his wife Noha from his nightshift job to make sure that she has followed the treatment course prescribed by their family doctor for the involuntary urination of their four children, who are in primary school. The doctor says that the four children lost their ability to control urination due to the fear they underwent when Israeli army jets bombed a home near theirs in the Jabalya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip during the "Warm Winter" military campaign three weeks ago. The four children still remember the terrifying night when they woke frightened up to the sound of a thundering explosion in the area and found that the glass of their home's windows had fallen onto their bed. Hawash, who works in one of the Palestinian security agencies, says that his children refuse to sleep alone, insisting on sleeping in the same room as their parents because they are scared of the night. He adds that he exerted great efforts to convince two of his children to go back to school, for they were afraid that they would be killed in an Israeli bombing operation on their way there, or while at school. Thousands of Palestinian children have experienced what Hawash's four children are undergoing. Mohamed Kharsa, 10, lives in the Tufah neighbourhood northeast of Gaza City, which has been subject to severe Israeli attacks. He runs away to his family home whenever he hears the roar of Israeli planes in the sky.
"Whenever I hear the sound of a plane I feel it has come to bomb me," he told Al-Ahram Weekly. Aish Samour, director of the Psychiatric Hospital in Gaza, says that 30 per cent of Palestinian children under 10 years of age suffer from involuntary urination due to deep-seated fear, and mentions other nervous problems such as nail- biting, nightmares, bodily pains of unknown cause, crying and introversion.
"A child exposed to this much violence becomes violent in his interactions with his peers and siblings, and his condition lowers his educational level and weakens his ability to concentrate," Samour told the Weekly. He says that Palestinian children who undergo shocking experiences during invasions and Israeli bombings become less obedient to their parents and families.
Samour reports that his hospital currently receives 33 children a month, a 30 per cent increase over the previous year. Samour notes that 47 per cent of children are afflicted with psychological shock without their families realising it. "The children of Gaza are not children who live normal lives. They live with difficult psychological suffering from the practices of the Israeli occupation, and this has a negative impact on their lives, their psychological wellbeing, and their acclimatisation to life," he said.
Samour adds that the scenes and images of death, destruction, tanks, ambulances, children bombed, bulldozers uprooting trees, the funerals of the killed, and planes that drop missiles over homes and the smoke rising from them -- all of which are shown on television as well as witnessed in the events that take place around them -- seriously affect the psychological and nervous conditions of Palestinian children.
Samour holds that the only guarantee for alleviating Gazan children of this "wretched" reality is to end the occupation. According to a study conducted by the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, each Palestinian child has been exposed to more than nine shocking events. The study says that 95.6 per cent of children have seen images of the wounded and killed, and 95 per cent have been affected adversely by hearing the sounds of explosions as a result of shelling.
Further, a total of 60 per cent of children have undergone moderate psychological shock, 6.7 per cent have undergone minor psychological shock, and 33.3 per cent have undergone major psychological shock. The study notes that 15.6 per cent suffer from minor post- traumatic syndrome disorder, while 62.2 per cent suffer moderately and 20 per cent severely.
Eyad Al-Sarraj, director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, says that Palestinian children have lost the two most important pillars in their lives: a sense of security that has been lost due to raids, bombings and destruction, and a sense of joy and happiness that is a staple of childhood. He says that when a child sees his father, "impotent and incapable of providing security", the child feels immediately "estranged". He adds that according to data gathered in a study his institution undertook, 45 per cent of children studied said that they had seen occupation soldiers beat their fathers and insult them before their eyes.
"The fact that Palestinian children take refuge in Palestinian organisations reflects their desire to gain a new, strong identity that can protect them," Al-Sarraj says.
Al-Sarraj points out that matters are made more complicated by the fact that due to the Gaza siege, Palestinian children suffer from a chronic state of malnutrition that affects their intellect. This is reflected in the fact that 15 per cent of Gaza's children suffer from impairments in their intellectual abilities due to malnutrition. He adds that repression and violence accumulated within the lives of Palestinian children affect their creative capacities and push them to resort to extreme acts that reflect the pain and frustration they feel.
Al-Sarraj adds that nearly 36 per cent of male children between the ages of eight and 12, and 17 per cent of females, wish to die in attacks on the occupation army.
Faten Shekshek, a social guidance counsellor working in a programme offering psychological support to children affected by shelling, says that the scenes of violence, killing and destruction the children have experienced in the northern Gaza Strip, and particularly during the Operation "Warm Winter" campaign, have left serious psychological, behavioural, and physical marks on most children. This is particularly clear in the behaviour of children at the primary school stage.
Shekshek says that scenes of violence remain strong in the minds of students, and that this surfaces in their drawings, most of which depict jets, tanks, bulldozers, martyrs and destroyed homes and trees.
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