Children of Gaza: 'Victims of the victims'
Children of Gaza ‘Victims of the victims’ by Regina Birchem
(This article was published in the International Peace Update Volume 74. No. 1. June 2009)
The sliver of land called Gaza is part of the Palestinian territories bordered by Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea. About twice the size of Washington, DC, it has a population of 1.4 million with more than a third living in extreme poverty. About 900,000 are classified as refugees. Children make up about 56% of the population.
At noon on 27 December 2008, Israeli forces began a military offensive by bombing the crowded streets of Gaza City just as the children were on their way to and from school. More than 225 Palestinians were killed on that day alone.
Over the three weeks of bombing about 1,500 Palestinians, at least 350 of them children, were killed and more than 5,300 were severely wounded, at least 1,600 of them children. Farms, fishing boats, factories, orchards, schools, city offices, police stations, portions of hospitals, UN facilities and 5,000 homes were reduced to rubble.
The 22-day assault on Gaza was preceded by an 18-month blockade, essentially shutting off the population from essential resources. The prison-like blockade continues even now, restricting transport of relief supplies and movement of people into Gaza through its three entry points.
All are suffering and afraid. Everyone is affected by the siege. It goes without saying that the children are affected in many ways.
Gazan mental health professionals do not use the term post traumatic stress disorder, as the trauma is ongoing. Dr. Hasan Zyada in Gaza, identified three main aspects of the problem they face due to the war and the ongoing siege: decreased motivation – feeling that they cannot succeed even with trying several times, stifled creative thinking, and great depression and sadness.
Nearly all the children were near bombardment and saw mutilated bodies. Dr. Zyada described how these traumatic events leave intrusive images on memory. Children don’t want to leave the house; cling to parents; experience night terror, bedwetting and nightmares; are easily provoked; are hyperactive and cannot concentrate; cannot endure frustration; and show avoidance behavior toward anything associated with war or news broadcasts.
As the effects are seen in school, the parents will be concerned and angry about academic progress. Their anger cannot be directed to the enemy but will be directed to the children.
Dr. Zyada observed, “We are creating the ‘enemy’ view in our children which they now show in their art and play.” The children experienced that their parents could not protect them during the war and they look for other figures to make them feel secure. They become identified with the soldier and become more aggressive.
Some of the children have become more passive, and display lowered self-esteem. Others have become more active and anxious. Some worry about the safety of their parents. One health worker overheard her 6-year old niece talking to herself: “Where shall I hide my mother – under the bed; and my father…?” Her aunt asked where will you hide me? “Sorry, the places are full.”
Speaking of the days ahead, Dr. Zyada concluded: Nearly everyone has lost a family member or close friend, a home, garden, animals. There will be depression because of this loss. There is no guarantee that the attacks will not happen again, leaving no time to grieve and mourn. If the mourning process is cut short there will be suppressed anger.“
The people of Israel also have not had time to mourn their past. We cannot continue to be the victims of Israel projecting their feelings of powerlessness and anger over their experience on Palestinians. It is not our fault. We are victims of the victims. The international community and all of us must aid them to deal with the tragedy that has happened to them.”
A young Gazan, translator, Muhamed, wrote recently that with other university colleagues he organized a symposium “Problems that face Gaza’s people during and after the war and ways to reduce its effect.” He wrote, “The help we need [from you] is to keep telling our story to the whole world, hoping one day the siege will be broken.”
Regina Birchem, WILPF international president 2004-2007, was a member of a 59-person international Code Pink delegation to Gaza in March 2009.
Qattan Center for the Child, art project on the war Photos by Paul Park, delegation member