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The psychological consequences of the trauma of war in Gaza

November 15, 2023 at 12:23 pm

Volunteers dressed up as clowns entertain children traumatized by conflicts between the Israeli military and Palestinian resistance groups in Gaza, after a ceasefire, on May 15, 2023, in Deir Al Balah, Gaza [Ashraf Amra/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images]

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a symptom or syndrome that occurs after seeing, directly experiencing or hearing a stressful and traumatic factor (trauma) that can lead to the death of the affected person. One of its factors is a person’s direct experience of the violent death of a family member or close friend. This disorder may also occur as a result of repeated exposure to the horrific details of an incident (trauma); likewise, police officers who are exposed to the details of criminal cases.

The injured person feels fear and helplessness in relation to these experiences, and often shows disturbed and restless behaviour. War and killings also cause trauma to survivors. Trauma is a psychological term that comes from the Greek word meaning wound and is known as a psychological injury. This occurs after being in a very stressful or uncomfortable situation. Being in such a situation makes you think that you have no security and that you are always in danger. As such, you feel helpless and constantly anxious.

The destructive war of the Israeli regime against the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip continues with heavy bombing by fighters and the targeting of homes, hospitals, schools and other civilian infrastructure. International organisations and experts have said that this is a “text-book case of genocide”. At the time of writing, more than 11,000 Palestinians have been killed and over 70 per cent of the victims are children and women. Worldwide demonstrations demand a ceasefire.

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However, it is now important to consider the trauma inflicted on the people of Gaza; they will suffer from it for the rest of their lives, and most people, especially children, will suffer from PTSD. This could seriously jeopardise the future mental health of the Palestinians in the enclave. In this regard, three painful psychological traumas caused by the attacks of the Israeli regime against the people of this region can be mentioned in particular.

Many cannot be sure if their loved ones are safe or not, or even still alive

For a start, there is the crisis of not knowing the whereabouts and fate of relatives. In a month of war, the Israeli regime has tried to cut off internet access for Gaza, as well as telephone links. Many Palestinians have been unable to discover the whereabouts, fate and health status of their relatives, friends and acquaintances under heavy Israeli bombardment. Many cannot be sure if their loved ones are safe or not, or even still alive. To put it more simply, they are anxious that they may have lost their loved ones and they still don’t know about it. Moreover, a large number of Palestinians have been forced to move from the north to the south of Gaza. This has also caused difficulties in finding out about relatives and friends.

Then there is the exposure of Palestinian children to horrific images in Gaza Strip as a result of Israeli air and artillery attacks, which causes severe shock. This is something that even adults cannot bear, leading to anxiety and serious mental and psychological damage. They see the dead bodies of their family around them, and see themselves as helpless with an uncertain future. They do not imagine any safe place and their psychological security has been lost.

We have probably all seen images of parents clutching their dead child, which have gone viral on social media. The parents feel unable to be separated from their child. It is a shocking image that touches the heart of every decent human being. With more than 4,000 children killed so far, if one or both parents have survived they will face serious mental issues in the shape of deep trauma to their souls.

According to UNICEF, more than half a million children in Syria under the age of five are stunted due to chronic malnutrition. Moreover, 2.4 million children within the country and 750,000 displaced beyond its borders do not go to school as a result of their displacement. The number of children who have suffered mental and psychological injuries due to constant exposure to violence, shock and trauma has doubled. Undoubtedly, this case will apply more strongly to the people of Gaza, especially the surviving children.

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The people of Gaza are Palestinians, most of them refugees or descendants of refugees who were forced to move to Gaza from other areas of historic Palestine since 1948. They have been practically held in a concentration camp and separated from their home towns and villages like a severed limb, with no way out of this situation because Israel does not allow them to exercise their legitimate right to return to their homes. As a result of this particular trauma, some people in Gaza will lose their sense of psychological security and feel threatened and helpless.

Psychological trauma can leave a person with distressing feelings, memories and anxiety that won’t go away. It can also cause numbness, disconnection and a lack of trust in others. People have to endure these severe traumas, even after the war ends, and many will definitely suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. This will have long-term negative political, economic, cultural and psychological effects, with the main consequence being a sense of the need for revenge that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.