The Gaza Strip, a narrow piece of land on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, has long been a hotspot of conflict. Over the years, its children have been caught in the crossfire, enduring violence, fear, and uncertainty that leave deep psychological scars. In the midst of relentless bombings and strife, a Palestinian psychiatrist and reports from the Hamas-run health ministry highlight the severe trauma developing among Gaza’s children.
The Grim Statistics
On a tragic Sunday, Gaza’s health ministry reported that, over 16 days of bombardment by Israeli forces since Hamas’s offensive began on October 7, an astounding 1,750 children had lost their lives. This staggering number averages to nearly 110 children per day, with thousands more injured. While the physical toll is devastating, it’s the psychological impact that is equally concerning.
Signs of Deep Trauma
Dr. Fadel Abu Heen, a psychiatrist in Gaza, sheds light on the grim reality. Children, he says, are displaying severe trauma symptoms, including convulsions, bed-wetting, overwhelming fear, aggressive behavior, nervousness, and an unwavering attachment to their parents. The relentless bombardments have left them without a safe haven, creating a constant sense of fear and horror throughout the population.
The Impact on Gaza’s Youngest
Gaza, home to a population of 2.3 million, nearly half of whom are children, has seen its youngest residents subjected to incessant bombings. As their homes crumble, many have sought refuge in temporary shelters within UN-run schools, often lacking access to basic necessities like food and clean water. The impact on these children’s lives is undeniable.
Israeli Children’s Struggles
The trauma is not limited to Gaza. Israeli children have also been profoundly affected by the conflict. The chair of the Israeli Pediatric Association, Zachi Grossman, notes that they are witnessing a significant rise in anxiety symptoms among Israeli children, a matter that he believes is not receiving adequate attention. Nearly 90% of children visiting pediatric hospitals have reported symptoms of anxiety, a situation unprecedented in the past. This growing recognition suggests that addressing this issue will require more extensive efforts than ever before.
Children in the Crossfire
For a 15-year-old child in Gaza, this is the fifth period of intense bombardment in their lifetime, following the years 2008-9, 2012, 2014, 2021, and now 2023. In each of these harrowing episodes, the toll on children’s mental health and well-being has been substantial, with symptoms akin to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) becoming increasingly prevalent.
Revisiting Past Trauma
Looking back at the aftermath of Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, UNICEF discovered that 82% of Gaza’s children were consistently or frequently in fear of imminent death. Other unsettling findings included sleep disturbances in 91% of children, 94% of children sleeping with their parents, appetite changes in 85%, and anger in 82%. The impact on these children extended to feelings of insecurity, guilt, nail-biting, itching, and general illness.
Similarly, after Operation Cast Lead, the three-week war in 2008-09, a study conducted by the Gaza Community Mental Health Program revealed that a staggering 75% of children aged six and older exhibited one or more symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Almost one in ten met all criteria for the disorder. Insecurity, feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, and severe anxiety were overwhelming among these young victims. Their reactions included sleep disturbances, nightmares, night terrors, regressive behaviors, bed-wetting, restlessness, hyperactivity, a reluctance to sleep alone, a constant need to be with their parents, overwhelming fears, and worries.
This period also saw a notable increase in psychosomatic symptoms such as unexplained high fevers and rashes across their bodies.
A Grim Reality
A report by Save the Children published last year delved into the impact of 15 years of blockade and repeated conflicts on the mental health of Gaza’s children. The findings were grim, highlighting a dramatic decline in psycho-social well-being to alarming levels. Children interviewed for the study reported feelings of fear, nervousness, anxiety, stress, and anger, listing family problems, violence, death, nightmares, poverty, war, and the occupation, including the blockade, as the least desirable aspects of their lives. The report quoted António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the UN, who described the lives of Gaza’s children as “hell on earth.”
As conflict continues to ravage Gaza, children remain among the most vulnerable victims. The trauma they experience leaves indelible marks, impacting their lives in profound ways. Without swift and effective intervention, the cycle of trauma may persist, affecting their well-being for years to come. Gaza’s children deserve peace, stability, and the opportunity to heal from the scars of their tumultuous childhoods.
Author of Social News Outlet, Tanvi Garg weaves compelling narratives that illuminate the human stories behind headlines.