After Israeli war, Gaza children speak of trauma and horror
With each round of unhinged Israeli violence visited on Gaza, it is always the children who suffer the most, and are left with indelible traumas from airstrikes, rocket fire, and scenes of carnage etched into young psyches unequipped to process war let alone cope with its aftermath.
Following a three-day bloody round of Israeli aggression against the besieged Palestinian enclave, Gazan children are reporting early signs of post-traumatic stress as they remember long, terrifying hours of Israeli shelling.
In the Jabalia refugee camp in the north of the coastal Strip, eyewitnesses described how Israeli warplanes bombed a group of Palestinians standing in crowded streets without warning.
The attack killed two children who were siblings and wounded at least ten others. According to their family, Ahmed and Moamen Mohammed al-Nairab were playing with relatives in the camp at the time of the Israeli strike.
Salma al-Nayrab, their cousin, described to The New Arab the moment the missile struck.
"We were playing and laughing when the missile fell on my cousins and killed them without mercy (...) I didn't know where to run. We were covered in blood, and we didn't know who was injured and who was dead among us," she said.
"Death was close to all of us, and I could have died with my cousins," she said, noting that she miraculously escaped after hiding in a shop in the area.
The girl explained that she will never forget the traumatic experience but said she dreams of living a safe life one day.
The situation was not much different for Mohammed al-Asouli from Gaza City who was also wounded after an Israeli warplane targeted a house next to them on Sunday.
"On Sunday, I was playing with my friends next to our house, but suddenly we heard the sound of a huge big explosion (...) I felt that the sky had turned black because of the thick dust,” the eleven-year-old told The New Arab.
"I was very scared. I thought I had moved to a lonely place. I didn't know where I was, so I started screaming and calling for my mother to save me," but no one came to rescue him.
After that, the child recalls, he sank into complete darkness. "I did not feel anything (...) When I opened my eyes I found myself in hospital, and I could hear the screams of pain of the injured around me,” as his father stood next to him trying to reassure him.
On Sunday, the Israeli warplanes targeted the house of a relative of Mohammed with several missiles, injuring a number of citizens present in the area.
"The Israeli army called my cousin and asked him to evacuate his house and the neighbouring houses before targeting him," adding, "We do not know the reason for targeting safe civilian homes,” Ahmed Al-Asouli, Muhammad's father, told The New Arab.
On Friday, the Israeli army unilaterally launched a military campaign against the Gaza strip, attacking a 12-storey residential building to assassinate Palestinian Islamic Jihad commander Tayseer al-Jaabari and three of his aides. Dozens of civilians were wounded.
The army proceeded to launch dozens of air attacks on military sites and residential buildings in the following two days, under the pretext of belonging to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and its supporters.
During the conflict, at least 46 Palestinians were killed, including 16 children and four women, while at least 350 others were wounded, according to the Gaza health ministry.
Children are among the vulnerable categories worst affected by Israel's warfare, whether through direct targeting and killing, or the traumatic impact on them.
Repeated Israeli wars have left disastrous effects on the psyche of Gaza's children, according to Fadel Abu Hein, director of the Center for Community Training and Crisis Management in Gaza. Common long-term trauma signs include panic, horror, lack of confidence in life, and a sense of safety, which makes them more introverted or more aggressive towards others, he told The New Arab.
“It is difficult to provide psychological treatment [for the children] because Gaza lives in a changing reality from time to time,” he added, explaining that psychological treatment differs from one person to another in terms of time.
Each victim needs a tailored psychological treatment programme to help them overcome the negative consequences of the Israeli wars on their lives, he added.
Following the Israeli campaign against Gaza last year, children, parents, and experts reported similar problems.
Parents mentioned their children suffer from nightmares, are wetting the bed, have a low academic achievement and have also witnessed a change in their appetite, with many now choosing to stay in isolation.
Dr Bahzad Al Akhras, MSc Child and Adolescent Mental Health Psychologist at the Gaza Mental Health programme, told The New Arab, last year, "There is a collective impact on the continuous aggressions Gaza is witnessing, including domestic violence, aggressiveness." He further explained how many people in Gaza were now experiencing Continoutuos Traumatic Disorder (CTSD), "which is more critical than PTSD," he added.
After every aggression, mental health specialists believe that the Israeli occupation wipes all their efforts to treat traumatic disorders, as children witness more violent and more extreme events, it forces them to start from scratch.
Research by Save the Children after the 50-day attack in 2014 revealed that after a year, seven out of ten children in the worst-hit areas in Gaza were still suffering from nightmares, and 75 percent were still bedwetting regularly. Up to 89 percent of parents reported that their children were consistently afraid. Research in 2019 after the escalation in 2018 found similar results.
Following 2021 campaign, Euro-Med Monitor found that about 91.4 percent of children in Gaza were now suffering from some form of conflict-related trauma.
"Children in Gaza are also undergoing hypervigilance, a state of increased alertness where you're extremely sensitive to your surroundings," Dr Al Akhras explained. Such a situation leads to poor concentration, high-stress and exhaustion, meaning children can no longer enjoy their daily lives.
"Children are vulnerable. They do not have the mechanisms that adults have to cope with the difficulties they are going through. A four or five-year-old does not understand the political conflict Palestine is going through yet."