|Palestinian children sit in front of their home in Al-Moghraqa in Gaza. NGOs say that the humanitarian situation in Gaza is at its worst point since 1967 [GALLO/GETTY]|
Alarmed by the recent Israeli incursion into Gaza and the continuing socio-economic deterioration of the occupied territories, several NGOs have launched crisis intervention programmes for traumatised Palestinian children.
Marwan Diab, a psychologist from the Gaza Community Health Programme (GCHP), says the youngest generation of Palestinians is in need of immediate assistance.
“A generation of Palestinian children face the danger of being psychologically damaged beyond repair unless there is sufficient urgent psychological intervention and an improvement in the political, social and economic conditions in the Gaza Strip,” he said.
Among those who need help is Muhammad Ayman, a teenager who said he watched close friend Muhammed Shreitih bleed to death after being shot in the head by an Israeli settler.
Palestinians inspect the destruction to their
“I can’t sleep at night, I’m having nightmares, I wake up covered in sweat and see Muhammed’s face in a pool of blood,” Ayman told Al Jazeera.
Friend Fahdi Nawaf, who said he also saw Shreitih die a few weeks ago, added, “I don’t feel like leaving home, I’m scared even to go to school and when I force myself to go to class I can’t concentrate.”
Nawaf, Ayman and Shreitih, all 18 years old, come from the West Bank village of Al-Mazra’a Al-Qiliya near Ramallah.
Nawaf and Ayman said a settler from the adjacent Israeli settlement of Telmond killed Shreitih while the teens participated in a peaceful march to protest the large number of casualties following Israel’s recent military incursion into Gaza.
“The settler started shooting towards us before we even reached the settlement. He got out of the bus and came towards us and shot from 50 meters away,” Ayman said.
But Israeli police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said that the settler had been forced to open fire after his life was endangered by stone-throwers.
Fear, anger and violence
Shreitih was one of approximately 140 Palestinians who died during the recent Gaza incursion and in the protests that erupted afterwards.
Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem released a statement saying that more than half of those killed were non-combatants, including many children.
However, Gabi Ashkenazi, chief of staff for the Israeli military, released a counter-statement saying that about 90 percent of those killed were armed militants.
Regardless of the disputed toll, “the number of children being diagnosed with symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) including bedwetting, nightmares, fear and clinging behavior has risen sharply,” Diab told Al Jazeera, adding that the GCHP has relaunched its crisis intervention team to address these problems.
Domestic violence is also on the rise, he said, as is increasingly aggressive behaviour of children towards each other.
“I feel such anger towards that settler who shot Muhammad dead,” Ayman said. “He shot him for no justifiable reason.”
Patricia McPhillips, special representative to Unicef in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, echoed some of Diab’s findings. “We are extremely concerned about the children,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Last year alone, 37,500 Palestinian children in the occupied territories participated in our group counseling sessions, 1,200 in individual sessions and over 18,000 care givers participated in parenting sessions,” she said. “We also visited 800 families in homes and hospitals following acute episodes.”
During the recent Israeli incursion into Jabaliya north of Gaza City, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) with its partners including Ministry of Education and Higher Education and UNRWA, which works with the Palestinian Center for Democracy and Conflict Resolution, activated an emergency mental health team and deployed counselors to schools to talk with children.
Europeans have also expressed concern about the deteriorating situation on the ground. Echo, the humanitarian aid arm of the European Commission, together with the Italian and French National Committees of Unicef have allocated significant funds to support Unicef’s five emergency sociological teams, which comprise of 25 people and which can be mobilised within minutes.
Unicef also offers a counseling hotline, in-depth follow-up visits and peer-to-peer counseling for adolescents at its youth centers.
Though children are always especially vulnerable in conflict situations, they are of particular concern to McPhillips and her teams because they constitute 56 percent of Gaza’s population and 52 percent of the overall population in the occupied territories.
“There is no normalcy here. Today’s children have parents who were psychologically damaged in the first intifada, and who themselves are children of parents who were made refugees following the first Arab-Israeli war,” McPhillips said.
Beyond emotional pain
In addition to psychological problems caused by their violent environment, Palestinian children also face economic deprivation and health issues.
Food and water are scarce at home because many parents are unemployed, and the situation is no better at school, where drinking water, toilet facilities and school supplies dwindle as border closures prevent Unicef from replenishing provisions.
Col Nir Press, an Israeli spokesman, denied that aid was being deliberately withheld. He added that the regular rocket attacks on border crossings into Gaza have forced the country to strike a balance between delivery and security.
Still, Gazan children need basics like medicine and educational supplies to grow into healthy adults who contribute to society, McPhillips warned, adding that a modicum of normalcy must return to the Strip for that to happen.
Diab reminded the international community that it is obliged to pressure Israel to abide by the international and humanitarian treaties it had signed.
He said one tiny ray of hope was the resiliency he had seen in Gaza’s children despite the horrific environment.
“We don’t hate all Israelis,” concluded Ayman and Nawaf. “We want peace with them. We only hate the settler who shot Muhammad.”