Child Trauma in the Gaza Strip…

May 13, 2009

“We are losing the next generation.” – John Ging, UN

 Most of the children in the Gaza Strip have been tear-gassed, had their homes raided, and have witnessed fighting, shooting, and explosions.[1]  Many have been injured and some have been tortured.  There is a pattern of violence against children in the Gaza Strip that cannot be avoided when half the population is children.  This continuous violence has had serious psychological effects on the children including post traumatic stress disorder, bed wetting, insomnia, nightmares, poor appetite, violence, and depression.

Before Operation Cast Lead, over 80% of Gaza children already suffered symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.[2]  Ian Gray of World Vision says “the reality is that this current violence is already compounding high levels of trauma in children, and one can only guess at the long term effects of this.”[3] During the offensive, there was no safe place for anyone; “people were vulnerable, frightened, defenseless…in a state of heightened anxiety, on constant alert due to the bombing.”  It is particularly traumatizing to children when they see that their parents are just helpless and frightened as they are.[1]

The world is beginning to see the physical damage that has been done to the children through the media and pictures of injured or dead children.  However, the pictures cannot show the psychological damage; they cannot convey the mind state of a child left alone for days in a shelled house, clinging to the body of his dead mother.[4]  That kind of trauma has already been shown to cause short term effects such as post traumatic stress disorder, bed-wetting, and nightmares; but the long term effects will “devastate for years to come.”[5]

According to Dr. Eyad Sarraj, director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, “I have been through so many of these kinds of things and this is the worst…these children need help more than anyone.  They look frightened, horrified, bewildered.”[6]

Dr. Sarraj treated a boy whose house was hit in an air strike.  The boy was feeling his way around his dark house after the air strike, and he felt something wet.[7] “He realized it was the flesh of his sister who was blown into pieces.  He was in such a state.  He couldn’t eat or smell meat.  I am sure he will suffer some kind of long-term psychological impact,” Dr. Sarraj said.

Ghaida Abu Eisha was eight years old when she was killed along with her parents and two brothers in an Israeli missile strike that hit their house during Operation Cast Lead.  The children’s uncle, Saber Abu Eisha, said “Ghaida was in the second grade at school.  She was like any little girl, she was pretty, she loved to play.  Sometimes she was laughing, sometimes she was crying.  She liked to play dress up, wearing a bride’s dress, showing off.”[8] 

Mohammed, 10, and Sayyd, 12, were also killed in the missile strike; their bodies were found in the rubble outside their house by surviving family members as they searched through the darkness using lights from their cell phones.  Two children survived the attack, Dalal, 12, and Ahmed, 5—both are deeply traumatized.  Their uncle says that “whenever they hear a loud noise, they fall to the ground….sometimes I think it’s easier for the people who are dead and it’s harder for those who are living.”

Salwi Tibi of Save the Children lives north of Gaza City where some of the most intense fighting took place.[9]  She remembers a 2 year old boy from Beit Lahiya who was taken to a hospital, lifeless.  “He was not injured, his health was OK.  The doctors told me the child died because of the shock from the sound of the shelling.”

According to Dr. Nabila Espanioly, a psychologist in Nazareth; “children, more than adults, have not yet developed the mechanisms to cope with feelings of helplessness and powerlessness.”  The violence Gaza’s children are witnessing and experiencing becomes the model for future behavior…this can already be seen in the role playing games common among children in the occupied territories of being soldiers and gunmen.  In the long term, they will seek to deal with their psychological trauma and regain a sense of power through violence because they have no other model.”[10]

In order to combat the effects of the psychological damage that has been done to the children in Gaza so far, psychologists are being recruited to the Gaza Strip and mental health programs are being set up. [11]  Conflict-resolution and communication skills are a major focus of the treatment. 

UNRWA employs 200 counselors in Gaza and is recruiting more in anticipation of an increase in psychological problems among children from the war.[12]  “These children have suffered a lot, we have seen many cases, many psychological disorders…aggressive behavior, many nightmares.”

When the schools reopened after the ceasefire, the first few days were used for counseling.[13]  “They ask why they shelled the school, and say they worry it will be attacked again.”  One of the methods counselors are using to help children express themselves is drawing.  Many of the pictures are filled with violent scenes of “Israeli tanks, dead bodies, and Palestinians firing assault rifles, scenes they saw in their neighborhoods.”[14]  Many teachers are worried that their students’ anger could lead to violence.

According to a study by Dr. Tawhina, of Community Mental Health Programme in Gaza City, every child in Gaza has been exposed to at least 9 shocking events.[15]  This includes witnessing people being wounded or killed.  95% have heard explosions from shelling and 45% said they have seen Israeli soldiers beating or insulting relatives.  The cumulative, long term effects of these events are heartbreaking.  The same survey said that more than one third of boys between the ages of 8 and 12 said that they wanted to die in a suicide attack.

Dr. Sarraj believes that “when children see their father is unable to guarantee their safety, they will opt for someone else to do it for them.  And that means that one day they will join militant groups possibly more extreme than Hamas itself.”[16]  According to Dr. Espionoly, “we are seeing the next generation of suicide bombers being created right now.” 

What is ironic is that Israel’s government says their military actions in Gaza are to promote safety and security in Israel.  In fact, Israel is creating more problems for itself in the long term.  Dr. Sarraj says that the years of violence in Gaza has only contributed to radicalism among the young people—who have seen their families humiliated and left defenseless.[17] 

In order for the children of Gaza to have any chance of recovering from the psychological damage that has been done to them, they need a safe and secure place to live in.  No more military action against them by Israel; the blockade and border closures must be stopped.  They need to have access to education, health care, and psychological treatment.  The children of Gaza deserve the same protections as children anywhere else in the world, guaranteed to them under the Geneva Convention and humanitarian law. 

“Children are going to bear the brunt of this…they should not be victims of the political context in which they live.”[18]





[1] “98% o f Gaza’s children experience or witness war trauma.” 1 August 2006. Science Daily. 26 January 2009. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/08/060801183448.htm

[2] “Psychological trauma and suffering in Gaza.” 15 January 2009. Care2. 26 January 2009. http://www.care2.com/c2c/share/detail/1016233

[3] “Trauma among Gaza’s children getting worse.” 26 January 2009. World Vision. 26 January 2009. http://www.worldvision.ie/server.php?show=nav.1346

[4] “Psychological trauma of the children of Gaza.” 24 January 2009. Ummah Forum. 26 January 2009. http://www.ummah.com/forum/showthread.php?t=200098

[5] “Gaza children increasingly traumatized- specialists.” 26 January 2009. IRIN. 26 January 2009. http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=82335

[6] “Children hit hard as Gaza toll rises.” 7 January 2009. BBC News. 26 January 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7814490.stm

[7] “Children hit hard as Gaza toll rises.” 7 January 2009. BBC News. 26 January 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7814490.stm

[8] “News Archive.” 26 January 2009. Gaza Mental Health Foundation. 26 January 2009. http://www.gazamentalhealth.org/

[9] “Children hit hard as Gaza toll rises.” 7 January 2009. BBC News. 26 January 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7814490.stm

[10] “Psychological trauma and suffering in Gaza.” 15 January 2009. Care2. 26 January 2009. http://www.care2.com/c2c/share/detail/1016233

[11] “Children and Family.” 26 January 2009. Gaza Community Mental Health Programme. 26 January 2009. http://www.gcmhp.net/File_files/Children.html

[12] “Gaza children return to school.” 25 January 2009. Al Jazeera. 26 January 2009. english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2009/01/200912494148412288.html

[13] “Gaza children go back to school bearing scars of war.” 24 January 2009. Middle East Online. 26 January 2009. http://www.middle-east-online.com/ENGLISH/?id=29970

[14] “Children show signs of trauma from Gaza conflict.” 26 January 2009. Associated Press. 26 January 2009. http://www.newsday.com/services/newspaper/printedition/monday/news/ny-wogaza266013146jan26,0,4829964.story

[15]“Psychological trauma and suffering in Gaza.” 15 January 2009. Care2. 26 January 2009. http://www.care2.com/c2c/share/detail/1016233

[16] “Psychological trauma and suffering in Gaza.” 15 January 2009. Care2. 26 January 2009. http://www.care2.com/c2c/share/detail/1016233

[17] “Children of Gaza: stories of those who died and the trauma for those who survived.” 23 January 2009. The Guardian. 26 January 2009. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jan/23/gaza-children-killed-israel

[18] “As early recovery work begins, the toll of the conflict on Gaza’s children is clear.” 21 January 2009. UNICEF. 26 January 2009. http://www.unicef.org/emerg/index_47378.html


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