The Effects of War and Terrorism on Palestinian Children BY M. BASHEER AHMED, MD.

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The “forever cycle of violence” continues without any end in sight

For last several decades, millions of Muslim children have been exposed to trauma due to wars, terrorism and displacement. No child is immune, whether they are in the U.S., Bosnia, Occupied Palestine, Indian-occupied Kashmir, Myanmar, or China. Millions of people around the world view such events on television, whereas countless Palestinian children experience it firsthand via bombs destroying buildings; killing family members, relatives, neighbors, and friends; and personal mistreatment. The media seldom describe how the survivors are affected, for they do not make headlines.

The May 2021 Israeli bombing of Gaza killed 260 Palestinians, including 66 children and 39 women. The ensuing intense psychological stress on Palestinian children disrupts their mental growth and psychologically weakens parents who are attempting to comfort them.

In the past two decades alone, Israelis have killed more than 3,000 Palestinian children. War-related stressors may include shelling, bombing, home demolitions and exposure to the wounding and killing of family members or loved ones. In Palestine, 54.7% of children have been exposed to at least one traumatic event during their life (https://pubmed.ncbinlm.nih.gov/15664427/).

Even when the threat is over, children tend to be over-vigilant and constantly preoccupied with the trauma they have experienced. This affects both their daily life and also their normal growth and development.

According to recent information from Gaza, a father of five children recalled the sound of an explosion that left his six-year-old daughter in total panic. The next day she became speechless, withdrawn and unable to sleep for 24 hours. When she heard that the bomb was dropped on the next-door building, she was horrified and kept on asking what happened to the children. When she saw the demolished building, she still asked whether the kids were alive under the rubble. The parents found it extremely painful and hard to explain what had happened. Children remained terrified of any noise that reminded them of the bombing. One mother tried unsuccessfully to calm her daughter during one of these episodes when she recognized that she was experiencing the same feelings of anxiety. Children know everything happening around them, and their parents’ love and reassurance don’t help them. Many children lost sleep, appetite and stopped socializing — even playing games. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, 12 of the 66 children killed in the recent Israeli air attacks were participants in its program to help Gazan children overcome trauma from previous wars. Those who survived were likely to relive the experience of the bombing.

Although 90% of Gazan residents need mental health support, there is very little help available. The need is far beyond the available resources. Please consult the following articles for more information on this tragedy: https://www.trtworld.com/magazine/how-israeli-attacks-psychologically-damage-palestinian-children-46773https://www.aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/ trauma-haunts-gaza-children-after-israeli-war/2268147https://www.aa.com.tr/ en/middle-east/trauma-haunts-gaza-children-after-israeli-war/2268147; https:// www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/5/30/waking-up-screaming-gazan-children-traumatised-by-israeli-war.

Most children respond to terror in two stages: (1) the immediate reaction of fright, disbelief, denial, grief and feelings of relief if loved ones were not harmed and (2) a few days to several weeks, when many of them start exhibiting signs of developmental regression and emotional distress such as anxiety, fear, sadness, depression, hostility, and aggressive behavior, apathy, withdrawal, sleep disturbance, somatization, pessimistic thoughts of the future, and play demonstrating themes related to the traumatic event (arabpsynet.com/Archives/OP/OP.Qouta. PTSD.htm)

 A few years ago, I met with Palestinian mental health professionals visiting the U.S. under a State Department program to study the treatment strategies for children with PTSD.

Shafiq Masalha, a Palestinian psychologist who studied the psychological consequences of prolonged trauma on 114 Palestinian children, studied the dreams of children (9-10-year-olds) to measure their psychological state. He found that 79% of them dreamed constantly about political violence, and 13% dreamed that they were killed or sacrificing their lives. They were preoccupied with death in one form or another. (https://pij.org/articles/82/ children-and-violent-conflict).

These dreams and preoccupations with the violence ultimately resulted in violent behavior. Psychiatrist Mahmud Sehwail stated that the Palestinian children do not suffer from PTSD, but from continuing traumatic stress disorder. (https://pij.org/ articles/125/a-legacy-of-violence-for-future-generations).

In the U.S. and elsewhere, a traumatized person lives in a protected environment. In Palestine, children have no such luxury (https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/ national-trauma-what-are-consequences-war-middle-east). Their most significant experiences are of intense fear, helplessness and horror. Mothers reassure them that they are safe, but they also give a realistic explanation that if something happens to them, they will go to heaven and have eternal peace. Most of these parents, who themselves were exposed to terror, suffer from PTSD and find it very hard to reassure their children.

The 10-12-year-olds recall how their friends were throwing stones at soldiers and how they were shot dead. The children are angry, and their parents cannot help them reduce their fear, anger, and feeling of helplessness. Others aged 14-16 verbalize the loss of their family, lands, homes and persistent humiliation. They do not believe the elders’ reassurance that one day Palestine will become an independent state, for all they see is suffering, pain and despair. They believe that they have nothing to look forward to except even more misery, humiliation and terror. These feelings re-enforce their anger and suicidal thoughts. They think of retaliation without worrying about the consequences.

Gaza City psychiatrist Dr. Iyad Sarraj has watched suicide bombings with growing alarm. Having grown up with the idea of suicide attacks, Palestinian children are equating death with “power” and creating a new kind of culture to compensate for their parents’ continued powerlessness. Some suicide bombers had no connection with groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and most of them didn’t go through the alleged months of preparation repeatedly parroted in Western media. These young adults die with the hope that giving their lives will give life to others, based on the principle that it’s better to die in dignity than to live in humiliation and shame (https://wwwnytimes.com/2002/06/21/world/Mideast-turmoil-bombers-rash-new-suicide-bombers-exhibit-no-patterns-ties.html).

Quota and Sarraj summarize that the Palestinian children, having grown up in a highly political environment and becoming involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at a younger age, perceived that their parents cannot protect them from trauma when they witness their parent’s humiliation. Their subsequent loss of trust in their parents destroys their psychological development (arabpsynet.com/Archives/OP/OP.Qouta.PTSD.htm).

Palestinian children with traumatic experiences live in the same environment of misery and suffering, but with severely limited therapeutic intervention. In the absence of therapeutic assistance and no end to occupation, their suffering and the ongoing cycle of violence are likely to continue. It is time for the Palestinian leadership to unite and develop a strong movement to gain independence for the sake of Palestine’s children.

M. Basheer Ahmed, MD, a former professor of psychiatry, SouthWestern Medical School, Dallas, is founder chairman emeritus, Muslim Community Center for Human Services.

References: American Academy of Pediatrics, Work Group On Disasters. “Psychosocial Issues for Children and Families in Disasters: A Guide for the Primary Care Physicians.” Washington DC: US Department of Health and Human Services; 1995. Publication No, (SMA) 95-3022

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M. Basheer  Ahmed M.D
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