The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is costing dearly, especially for children in the region.
Over the past week, amid the most intense fighting between militants in Israel and Gaza since 2014, 52 Palestinian children have been killed, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. The United Nations reports that two Israeli children have died during the current escalation.
Child deaths are gaining international attention, but human rights experts say more focus needs to be placed on traumatized children who survive conflict. In a video widely shared on social media, a girl from Gaza gets emotional as she points to the ruins around her, apparently begging viewers as she asks, “What do you want from me? Fix? I’m only 10 years old.”
While experts on conflict and trauma say Israeli and Palestinian children will experience adverse mental health effects in the short and long term, children living in Gaza are more vulnerable because they are poorly protected from attacks, exposed to more civil cases and lack of sanity. care. In Gaza, more than 40% of the population are children under the age of 14. Hamas, a militant Islamic group, has controlled Gaza since 2007.
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“(What) the children of Gaza are regularly exposed to is beyond anything, anything any child anywhere else in the world experiences,” said Jess Ghannam, professor of psychiatry at the School of Medicine. the University of California at San Francisco. specializes in the health consequences of war on displaced communities and the psychological effects of armed conflict on children. “There is hardly any place for these children to go. They are unable to escape.”
Trauma can have a greater impact on a person when they are unable to escape a dangerous situation. Ghannam, who has made more than two dozen visits to Gaza over the past two decades, said a distinct feature of the conflict is that children in Gaza’s narrow coastal strip feel trapped by borders on either side. of Egypt and Israel. In other areas of conflict, children and their guardians may move. There is a certain sense of control.
A 2020 study published in the journal “Frontiers in Psychiatry” found that among Palestinian children and adolescents in the Gaza Strip, nearly 90% had experienced personal trauma and more than 80% had witnessed trauma in others. . In Gaza, it is virtually impossible, experts say, for children to have access to mental health care.
“It’s that absolute feeling and this inability to do anything that makes the impact so much worse,” Ghannam said.
Palestinian and Israeli children both suffer from trauma, but differences abound
Children on both sides of the conflict are exposed to traumatic events, the terror of sirens and sudden explosions. Jennifer Leaning, a senior researcher at the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard, said that in areas of Israel particularly vulnerable to attacks in 2014, children were urged to avoid going at school or to remain only strongly protected areas during participation. As bathrooms were generally outside, many children avoided them.
“The kids stopped going to the bathroom during eight or ten hours of school because they were so terrified,” she said.
But Ghannam and Leaning say the children of Gaza lack protective factors like those Israel offers its citizens.
“Many Israeli children suffer from the same type of PTSD, but if you look at the context in which you can go to a bomb shelter, have access to an integrated health system, have access to mental health services and have parents who can protect them. The differences are huge, ”Ghannam said.
Children in Israel will have many of the same symptoms, Leaning said, but the differences in sources of security cannot be understated.
“They have parents, grandparents and extended family who can give them perspective and they have a government they rely on and trust,” she said. “There are none of these assets or supports for children in Gaza.”
Leaning said that even if the infrastructure was there, mental health care would likely not be very effective in an environment where the trauma is ongoing.
“Mental health care only really starts to work when the acute trauma isn’t raining,” she said.
Caregivers influence coping, but many parents themselves suffer
How a child copes with trauma is directly related to their level of support from the caregiver. A calm and loving parent can help lessen the impact of a traumatic event on a child.
“The fear felt and expressed by the adult caretaker in many ways permeates the views of children,” Leaning said. “So as long as the parents can be calm, or very collected, or appear to be in control, this is the place of safety for the children.”
Caregivers on both sides of the conflict struggle to raise their children under the threat of violence. But in Israel, parents have access to mental health care and are empowered to move their children to safer spaces, within or outside their own country. In Israel, a highly effective missile defense system called the Iron Dome also means rocket attacks from Gaza rarely hit their targets.
In Gaza, Leaning said parents “are scared and run and try to find any kind of shelter before the next night.”
“I think the idea that adult goalies can now provide a cone of protection and strength to children is highly unlikely. (…) Families are deeply afraid and children are exposed to this fear and, in a similar process, absorb it ”. she said.
For children who lost adult caregivers during the conflict, experts say the trauma has intensified.
A childhood marked by trauma
In places untouched by war, childhood is marked by milestones. For children growing up in conflict zones, childhood is marked by trauma.
When aid workers visit Gaza, it is typical to see children of all ages huddled against their parents, Leaning said. A 2-year-old child who would normally learn to separate from his parents, rather clings to them. Leaning said it was not uncommon for children who achieved their goals to regress.
Young children do not spend enough time playing, which is essential for healthy growth. They don’t develop emotional social skills with their peers. Their life is defined by fear, often concerning the safety and permanence of their caregivers.
For older children, Leaning said there was often a problem with unfocused rabies.
“Children find it very difficult to express their feelings,” she says. “They will remain silent and brooding, many of them will become very depressed, but the expression of feeling comes out of rage, actions, which makes life difficult for any parent, not to mention what these parents are dealing with. .
The importance of hope
Mental health experts say hope is an essential component of basic functioning. It is fundamental for mental well-being. In Gaza, Leaning said children and their parents find it hard to hope.
She said she saw parents in a state of “semi-desperation”. They want better for their children, for them to be educated, to excel, to access a better life. But for many children living with violence, their parents’ dreams seem elusive.
“These kids don’t see how it’s going to mean anything.… These older kids are falling into this brooding depression and / or this activism,” Leaning said. “There is a desperation that prompts them to do risky things. What happens to children is actually in the worst interest of anyone seeking peace between Israel and Palestine.”
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