Aid workers fear Gaza's kids will become 'easier prey for extremists'
Psychologists say Israel's three-week offensive inflicted more severe trauma than previous conflicts in Gaza because civilians didn't have a safe zone 'Israel now created hatred in this generation, which means it will be difficult in the future to convince those children to build peace with them,' health center administrator says
On a little patch of grass, surrounded by mountains of rubble that were once their homes, two dozen children sat in a circle on a rainbow-colored blanket and drew with crayons.
They quickly filled the white pages passed around by trauma counselors with pictures of fire-spewing Israeli tanks, dead bodies and Palestinian gunmen firing assault rifles, scenes they witnessed when Israel's war on Hamas came to their neighborhood.
"We felt we will die soon," 11-year-old Sharif Abed Rabbo told the group, describing his family's escape. "And I am sad I lost my house."
Psychologists say Israel's three-week military offensive inflicted more severe trauma than previous conflicts in Gaza because civilians didn't have a safe zone. A wartime study among hundreds of Gaza children indicated a rise in nightmares, bedwetting and other signs of trauma, said psychologist Fadel Abu Hein.
Beyond the immediate damage, counselors and aid workers fear that Gaza's children, who make up 56 percent of 1.4 million people here, will become easier prey for extremists.
"Israel now created hatred in this generation, which means it will be difficult in the future to convince those children to build peace with them," said Abu Hein, who runs a community health center in Gaza City.
"We are losing the next generation," added John Ging, the top UN aid official in Gaza. As a buffer against militancy, UN schools are launching human rights classes for their 200,000 students this week.
Children and teens were particularly vulnerable in Israel's military offensive, launched Dec. 27 to try to halt Hamas rocket fire on towns in southern Israel. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights counted 280 children among 1,285 dead and said one in four of the more than 4,000 wounded was a minor.
Destruction at Gaza school (Photo: AP)
Facing the Israeli invasion, Hamas gunmen often operated from densely populated Gaza neighborhoods, drawing massive Israeli fire that killed and wounded large numbers of civilians, along with fighters. Tens of thousands fled their homes during the onslaught, seeking shelter in UN schools.
Among the refugees was Ansam Rahel, 10, who fled shelling of her home in the town of Beit Lahiya and sought cover, along with her family, in the town's UN school. On Jan. 17, when an Israeli shell struck the shelter, Ansam was hit by shrapnel that sliced across the top of her head. A thick welt of stitches runs diagonally across her partially shaved head, and she covers it with a black ski cap.
The little girl, who carries herself with quiet grace and sadness, is back home, but her life has changed. Her father is in Egypt, where her 5-year-old sister Dima is undergoing treatment for a serious war injury. Ansam said she takes painkillers and doesn't sleep well because her head hurts.
On Saturday, she briefly returned to her school to say goodbye to friends. She is not well enough to attend and was told by school officials she might eventually be taken to France for further medical treatment. "I didn't let them cry or feel pity for me," she said of her classmates.
Abu Hein, the psychologist, said his teams interviewed 950 families, among them 2,180 children, in UN shelters across Gaza during and after the war. Many parents reported signs of trauma in their children.
For example, a majority said their children had become more clingy, and about one-third said their children insisted on sleeping in the same room as their parents.
Since a ceasefire took hold a week ago, Abu Hein's center and other aid groups have sent teams to the most devastated areas, seeking out the children for emergency counseling.
On Sunday, three of his counselors drove to the Abed Rabbo neighborhood of the town of Jebaliya, a few hundred yards from the Israeli border. The neighborhood came under heavy fire from tanks and aircraft during Israel's ground offensive, which began Jan. 3. House after house in a radius of hundreds of yards were destroyed, and there was nothing left except huge mountains of rubble.
The counselors spread a large blanket on a small patch of grass, and children soon came running. About two dozen, from toddlers to young teens, sat down in a circle.
'He, by himself, hates Israel'
They played a few games, raising their hands or clapping, to break the ice. One of the counselors then asked the older kids to tell what happened to them during the war.
Asra Aref, 8, said her father raised a white flag when soldiers came closer and spoke Hebrew to them. "The soldiers told him he has just five minutes to evacuate the house," she said.
Counselor Farraj al-Hau tried to assure the children, especially the boys, that it's OK to be scared, that he himself was frightened during the war.
Then he distributed paper and crayons and asked the children to draw. The youngest ones just managed a few squiggles, but almost all the drawings of the older ones included tanks, helicopters or bodies sprawled on the ground. One boy depicted a Palestinian gunman firing an assault rifle at a tank. In another picture, two blue dots were meant to show land mines planted under tanks.
At one point, 5-year-old Saja Abed Rabbo, in pigtails and pajamas, started crying. Counselor Mustafa Haj-Ahmed led her away from the circle. He sat down with her on a nearby chunk of cement, held her hand and gently asked her what happened to her. Despite much coaxing, she barely spoke.
Haj-Ahmed then walked with her and a relative to her wrecked home, about 100 yards away. Her grandfather, Mohammed, explained that the family, Saja among them, came under heavy fire in the house for three days before fleeing. He said Saja saw the bodies of two cousins, ages 13 and 14, who were killed in the fighting. The counselors said they'd return to the neighborhood for more intensive counseling.
Gaza's 221 UN schools are also trying to help the children cope. On Saturday, the first day of school, teachers asked students to share their stories.
Also, students will have weekly human rights classes, including lessons about nonviolent ways of solving conflicts. Ging said the new program has been in the works for a while, but now had greater urgency.
"We have to stand with the mothers and fathers who want their children to grow up to be doctors, lawyers and civilized in their behavior and their thinking," Ging said. "But for sure, the circumstances here, day by day, are working against all of us who have that agenda."
On the Israeli side, life in border communities has been disrupted by almost daily rocket fire from Gaza in recent years. During the recent fighting, Hamas militants stepped up the attacks, firing longer-range rockets that put nearly 1 million Israelis in range, terrifying children and forcing residents into bomb shelters. Some of the rockets hit homes, schools and kindergartens.
For Zakariya Baroud, a 14-year-old Palestinian, the trauma is all too real. Zakariya lost three of his classmates in an Israeli mortar attack that killed 42 people, most of them civilians, near a UN school in the Jebaliya refugee camp. Israel said at the time that troops were firing at a Palestinian rocket squad in the area.
Zakariya rushed to the scene of the shelling after hearing the huge booms. He said he saw bodies strewn across the main road, including that of his best friend, Bashar Deeb, with a deep gash in his throat.
His father, Baker, who spent eight years in Israeli prisons for activities in a violent group, said he'd like Zakariya to attend university, but wouldn't talk him out of taking up arms.
"He is seeing suffering right now," he said of his son. "For 22 days, we were not able to sleep. He has witnessed the events by himself, so he, by himself, hates Israel."