Gaza, Asharq Al-Awsat- 10 year old Khamis Wafi has good reason to be happy; it is the first time he has not jumped at the sound of a balloon bursting. This “achievement” was the result of treatment supervised by Ali Nasman, a psychiatrist who is caring for dozens of Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip, specifically in the northern regions, for the shocks that they have suffered as a result of the sounds of explosions launched during Israeli operations that targeted the Gaza Strip, in particular during Operation Hot Winter that began at the end of February.
The treatment process is based on the idea of accustoming children to the sounds of explosions in order to reduce their psychological effect. There have been positive results amongst some children whereas others are terribly frightened when they hear a balloon bursting.
Investing in the treatment of children for psychological shocks that they have suffered as a result of shelling operations is truly justified since the condition is so common. Ibrahim Hawash, 42 years old, frequently calls his wife during his nightshift at work to make sure that she follows the prescribed treatment for their children’s involuntary urination condition. The family doctor confirmed that the four children, who are in primary school, have lost the ability to control their bladders as a result of the shock they suffered when Israeli army jets bombed a house close to their home in Jabalya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip during the Hot Winter military campaign.
The four children still remember this terrifying night when they suddenly woke up to the deafening sound of an explosion and found that glass from their windows had landed on their beds. Ibrahim, who works at a Palestinian security agency, said that his children refuse to sleep alone and insist on sleeping in the same bedroom as their parents out of fear. He added that it took a lot of effort to persuade two of his children to go back to school as they are afraid of Israeli bombing operations taking place on their way to school or whilst at school. Thousands of Palestinian children have experienced what Hawash’s four children are going through.
Dr. Aish Samour, director of the Psychiatric Hospital in Gaza, stated that 30% of Palestinian children under 10 years of age suffer from involuntary urination due to deep-seated fear and mentions other nervous habits such as nail-biting, having nightmares, physical pains of unknown cause, crying and introversion.
Dr Samour explained that “A child exposed to this much violence becomes violent in his interaction with colleagues and siblings. This condition lowers his educational level and weakens his ability to concentrate.” He pointed out that Palestinian children who go through shocking experiences during invasions and bombings become less obedient to their parents and families.
Samour stated that since the beginning of this year, the percentage of children who frequently visit the hospital has increased. The hospital currently receives 33 children a month that is a 30% increase over the previous year. Samour highlighted that 47% of children have suffered psychological shocks without their families realizing it. “The children of Gaza are not children who lead normal lives. They endure difficult psychological suffering as a result of the Israeli occupation’s actions, which has a negative impact on their lives, their psychological health and their ability to adapt to life,” he said.
According to a study conducted by the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, every Palestinian child has been exposed to over nine shocking events. The study added that 95.6% of children have seen images of the wounded and dead, and 95% have been affected by the sounds of explosions. The study further indicated that all children have been exposed to some kind of psychological shock whereby 60% of children have experienced moderate psychological shock, 6.7% have experienced minor psychological shock, while 33.3% have experienced major psychological shock. The study indicated that 15.6% suffer from minor post-traumatic disorder, 62.2% suffer moderately, while 20% suffer severely.
Dr. Eyad Al Sarraj, director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, stated that Palestinian children have lost the sense of security and the sense of happiness. According to a study conducted by the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, 45% of children said that they had watched Israeli soldiers beat and insult their fathers in front of them. “The fact that Palestinian children take refuge in Palestinian organizations reflects their desire to gain a new strong identity that can protect them,” Al Sarraj added.
Al Sarraj pointed out that matters are further complicated by the fact that Palestinian children are suffering from a chronic state of malnutrition that affects their intellect. He added that the accumulation of repression and violence affects the mental and creative abilities of Palestinian children and pushes them to resort to acts of extremism that reflect the pain and frustration that they feel. Al Sarraj indicated that approximately 36% of boys aged between eight and 12, and 17% of girls, hope to die in martyrdom operations against the Israeli army.
According to another Palestinian study, 15% of children in the Gaza Strip have suffered a loss in the family at the hands of the Israeli army, 9% have one family member who suffers from a disability after having been shot by the occupation forces, 21% have a family member in exile and 42% have family members who are political detainees.
Samih Abu Zakya, a children’s specialist and the director of a center concerned with Palestinian children’s art, highlighted another danger that threatens all children even if they are not exposed directly to Israeli operations, namely, the painful scenes witnessed by children via the different forms of media especially satellite channels, which add to the psychological pressure that children are experiencing. He believes that allowing children to watch these scenes is a “violation of children’s rights”. Abu Zakya warned against such negative impacts going untreated, the consequences of which can be disastrous. At the same time, he called upon implementing programs that aim to alleviate the pressure that children have experienced during the recent bloody events.
Yet the suffering of Palestinian children does not stop at the psychological level; dozens of children have been killed during the first quarter of this year. According to a report by the department of national and international relations in the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), the number of Palestinians killed as a result of Israeli military operations within the Palestinian Territories since the beginning of this year is estimated at 274, including 50 children, two of whom were newborns (20 days old and seven months old) and 18 women. According to data from the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 50% of the population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip are under 16 years of age. This means that nearly two million children have psychologically suffered as a result of Israeli repression.
Dr. Fadl Abu Haien, a psychology professor at Al Aqsa University in Gaza, believes that Palestinian children, as a result of the psychological pressure that they endure, resort to different ways to adapt to this harsh reality, indicating that one common result is quietness in reaction to tension, anxiety, fear, isolation, introversion and that they withdraw and seldom take part in social and family activities.
As part of his scientific research, Abu Haien concluded that Palestinian children resort to behavior that is inappropriate to their age as a result of pressure. He added that in some cases, as a result of fear of Israeli operations and difficult psychological problems, the child’s consciousness is disrupted and can appear in the form of sleepwalking and health-related problems.
Dr. Tayseer Diyab, a prominent researcher in the field of mental health, conducted an in-depth study with a team of psychiatrists on the impact of Israeli violence and blockade on Palestinian children in Gaza. Diyab found that there was a substantial increase in violence amongst children, in and outside of school, by forming gangs and fighting using chains and sticks and using abusive language. The results indicated that children had become more insensitive and that they lacked a sense of danger as, for example, they would gather around places where shelling had occurred and would pick up remains of rockets.
Dr. Diyab recounted a story of one of the children under observation who asked him, “Does heaven have electricity?” He added, “I get scared when there is no electricity.”
The psychiatrists who took part in the study asked 26 pupils to imagine the best place that they could and the results showed that none of the children could think of anywhere since their imaginations were confined to places related to sadness and suffering such as cemeteries or prisons. As for the drawing exercise, children were asked to illustrate an image of the homes in their district and most of them drew one small house and this portrays the sadness that overwhelms them.
Furthermore, the psychological suffering of 300 children detained in Israeli prisons must also be taken into consideration. Dr. Fouad Al Khuffash, the Director of the Ahrar Center for Prisoners Studies said, “The Israeli intelligence agency places every detained Palestinian child in a cell alone for a week where an investigation is carried out regarding his involvement in stone throwing,” he added. He said that investigators threatened children with rape and would hurl abusive language at them.
In a statement to Asharq Al-Awsat, he added, “Reprimanding a child everyday, threatening to arrest his brother or using other immoral threats destroys one’s soul and is a motive to commit suicide.” He pointed out that the Israeli intelligence agencies are continuing to create new methods to force detained children to become spies in order to destroy the Palestinian social fabric. Al Khuffash added that the [Israeli] Shabak security service depends on detained children in order to plant the biggest number of spies amongst Palestinian people. All detained children are invited to join Shabak and they are beaten and threatened with rape to convince them to go down the road of treason.