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'I tried so hard to hide my fear': Why we should not forget the children of Gaza

100 days after ceasefire, Gaza's children are not offered the opportunity to take a break from the trauma and to recover
Returning Palestinian children stare at the damage to their home, which was hit by the Israeli bombardment of Gaza City on 21 May 2021 (AFP)

It has been almost 100 days since a ceasefire was announced by Israel back in May, and since then there has been relative peace in Gaza - for now at least. But while the extreme violence has ended, the trauma faced by Palestinians has not. 

Palestinian children are now facing greater challenges than ever before

Recently, the charity I work for spoke with 10 women and children living in Gaza for its new report, "Dreams for Freedom: Stories from the Ground".

One of them was 14-year-old Ayah, the eldest of four siblings and an aspiring writer. She says the crippling fear she felt about nearby bombs killing her family is permanently etched in her memory. Yet she tried to stay strong for her family.

"I was very scared... but I didn't want to show it. I took my siblings into the hallway to play with them so they would forget about the war," she told me.

"I tried so hard to hide my fear, to the point where I would stand up even when it was dangerous, just to indicate to my siblings that fear is unnecessary and that we should have strong faith in Allah [God]."

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Root causes

For Ayah and others living in Gaza, it is often their faith that helps them through difficult times.

As a country director of a charity organisation, I and our team also do our best to support Palestinians with shelter, food, water, medical supplies and ongoing psychological support. But we can only do so much. 

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Generations of Palestinian children have suffered due to the decades-long occupation of Palestine and the crippling blockade on the Gaza Strip. For the cycles of violence and trauma to end, the international community must come together to deal with these root causes. 

With the recent violence and destruction of key infrastructure in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian children are now facing greater challenges than ever before.

Of the 253 people killed in Gaza, at least 66 were children. Many children have experienced multiple rounds of violence in their lifetimes, and, as a consequence, suffer from anxiety, depression and the ongoing effects of trauma. 

Almost 90 percent of children and adolescents in Gaza have experienced personal trauma and observed the destruction of property from Israeli bombing campaigns, while more than 80 per cent have been exposed to others experiencing traumatic events. 

Palestinian children walk past a building, destroyed during the recent 11-day war between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement, on their way to school for the first day of the new scholastic year in Gaza City on August 16, 2021.
Palestinian children on their way to school on 16 August 2021 walk past a building destroyed by Israel in May during its assault on Gaza (AFP)

It's not surprising then that, as our charity organisation has discovered, 38 per cent of young Palestinians are at the tipping point. They admit to having contemplated suicide amid growing desperation stemming from increasingly uninhabitable living conditions imposed by Israel's 14-year air, sea and land blockade and several military offensives in the area.

Huge challenge

Strong psychosocial support is urgently needed. Even prior to the recent escalation in violence, Unicef noted that one in every three Palestinian children requires counselling, but there are not nearly enough appropriately qualified professionals in Gaza to meet their needs.

While the western world tells us that the children of Gaza suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), there is no 'post' to the trauma

Moreover, some of the hospitals and primary healthcare centres where services were being delivered were recently damaged by Israeli bombs

Many children also lost family members and their homes in the recent offensive, and are experiencing worsening shortages in water and electricity.

In fact, over 77,000 Palestinians have been displaced in the recent rounds of violence and 800,000 more do not have reliable access to clean water. These crises, along with the increased risk of contamination from leftover explosives, are a huge challenge to the mental and physical wellbeing of our youth.

Lasting peace

While the western world tells us that the children of Gaza suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), there is no "post" to the trauma. Tragically, our children are not offered the opportunity to take a break from the trauma and to recover.

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There is only the ongoing trauma that is inflicted by the regular cycle of bombs that are dropped on homes, businesses and communities. 

While international humanitarian support is appreciated and crucial, it cannot end there. Countries must use their influence in urging the Israeli government to end the blockade and the illegal occupation of Palestinian territories, as well as respecting basic universal human rights.

Only when we address these issues - and there is lasting peace - will we be able to guarantee the mental and physical health of future generations of Palestinian children.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Muneeb Abu-Ghazaleh is the Country Director for Islamic Relief Gaza
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