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Israel's siege and violence are damaging Palestinian children's minds

Palestinian children hold candles during a rally amid the ruins of houses destroyed by Israeli strikes, in Gaza City on 24 May 2021 [MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images]
Palestinian children hold candles during a rally amid the ruins of houses destroyed by Israeli strikes, in Gaza City on 24 May 2021 [MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images]

Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip are being psychologically tortured. Growing up with periods of prolonged fear and abuse has devastating physical and mental consequences, and young people are suffering as a result.

Israel's latest military offensive against the Palestinians in Gaza inflicted lasting trauma on children, with noticeable behavioural changes due to what they witnessed during the bombing; not only the destruction but also the killing of entire families.

"There have been repetitive attacks, assaults and massacres over the past 13 years in Gaza," explained Dr Samah Jabr, chair of the mental health unit at the Palestinian Ministry of Health. "And with every attack, there is a new generation of people who are traumatised."

There is no safe place in Gaza, and the number of children at risk is extraordinary. Israeli air and artillery strikes during the 11-day assault in May killed 253 Palestinians, including 66 children. More than 1,900 people were wounded.

The purpose of the atrocities and violence is to have a huge psychological impact on the people, noted Dr Jabr. "It is the children who are the most vulnerable because they are at that special stage in their development where they are not getting the chance to develop healthy defence mechanisms."

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According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2020 nearly half of the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank were under the age of 18. An average 15-year-old in Gaza has lived through four major Israeli offensives. Nearly everyone in Gaza knows someone who has been killed in the attacks.

Whole families are affected. "The children live under the care of adults who are suffering too, due to the high rate of unemployment, poverty and food insecurity in Gaza," said Dr Jabr.

More than two million Palestinians live in the Gaza Strip and suffer from deteriorating economic conditions as a result of the Israeli blockade imposed on the territory since 2006. Around 70 per cent of the population are struggling with food insecurity and require aid, say World Food Programme officials. Unemployment stands at around 69 per cent. Israeli bombs have devastated the business community and infrastructure, meaning that recovery will be very difficult.

Death toll in Israeli attacks on Gaza Strip keeps rising...- Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Death toll in Israeli attacks on Gaza Strip keeps rising…- Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

"The trauma is very special in Gaza because it is ongoing and being superimposed repetitively on historical collective trauma," Dr Jabr pointed out. "And there is nowhere safe for families and children to seek refuge in Gaza." There were times she and her colleagues intervened while the traumatic situation was still taking place. "I could hear the bombardment in the background when people called me from Gaza. It was a very unusual situation."

She explained that mental health professionals are not equipped to provide suitable interventions for such chaotic situations. "Nevertheless, we support people by advising them to stay grounded and maintain their usual routine for the day in spite of all the difficulties."

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A series of research studies on the effects of war on Palestinian children living in the Gaza Strip concluded that symptoms of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were prominent amongst children who had been exposed to substantially distressing events, such as destruction of their family home; seeing family members being killed; seeing and hearing the jets and bombs; and the arrest of family members. The effects are severe and can dramatically hinder a child's ability to sleep and cause a lack of concentration and panic attacks, as well as anxiety. Perhaps even more disturbing, they instil constant fear.

Dr Jabr believes that their suffering actually exceeds the definition of PTSD. Western-developed interventions and tools for measuring depression do not tend to distinguish between justified misery and clinical depression. Similarly, clinical definitions of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression do not apply to the experiences of Palestinians.

In addition to horrific physical injuries and deprivation, these Palestinian children face incomparable psychological trauma and crushing poverty, with little or no access to the support and medical attention they so desperately need. "It's the intensity of violence and atrocities that are surrounding them. Usually we are trained to provide intervention to people who are traumatised in cases of primary event trauma like car accidents or a severe injury. However, in the life of a Palestinian child, they come from a background of historical, generational and collective trauma. Eighty per cent of Palestinians in Gaza come from refugee families who have lost their homes and more, and that huge loss stays within the family. Their families also participated in the Intifada and now they're witnessing multiple wars and massacres on top of poverty."

They find themselves without any hope of freedom, she added, or any sign that their situation will change. The siege is fracturing minds. In response, there is a culture of apathy towards the fate of Palestinians in Gaza and their cause, which further deteriorates their mental health.

"When people see that world powers side with the aggressor and say that Israel has the right to defend itself and ignore all the killings that take place in Gaza, Palestinian parents feel that they are blamed for the killing of their children by the Israeli occupation forces," said Dr Jabr. "That is traumatising."

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Directing suspicion towards the victim, thereby justifying or excusing the original violation that the victim suffered, is a clear attempt to avoid Israeli culpability for the deaths of Palestinian children. In addition to this dehumanisation of the Palestinian people, such an approach allows the how and why of these children being killed and wounded to be overlooked.

It's abundantly clear that the international community is failing the people of Palestine, especially in Gaza. And yet, the discourse of psychological resilience has a heavy hold there. Dr Jabr addressed a common misconception that people are either resilient or completely hopeless. She believes that resilience is dynamic and is built by resisting oppression, as it provides a sense of justice and represents morality. "We can be resilient at certain moments, but not resilient at other moments. Simultaneously, people can be traumatised while showing signs of resilience." The latter, she added, relies not only on the individual but also collective factors that can encourage the resilience of individuals. "These shouldn't be ignored."

In conclusion, Dr Samah Jabr called for international unity in challenging Israel's aggression by standing in solidarity with the Palestinian people as they resist the occupation and military offensives. "The most valuable help is political support when Palestinians are active agents fighting for their freedom, not when it's too late and they are bleeding around dead bodies. And when it comes to healing, we Palestinians will take care of it. In fact, we already are."

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