Children of Gaza: Scarred, Trapped, Vengeful

Published on
by
The Independent/UK

Children of Gaza: Scarred, Trapped, Vengeful

by
Rachel Shields

Omsyatte, whose home was destroyed by F16s during the 2008 military offensive. Warfare has dominated thee short lives of Gaza's children; particularly the horrors of the 2008 Israeli military offensive Operation Cast Lead, which killed 1,400 Palestinians, and destroyed one in eight homes. (Dispatches)

Omsyatte adjusts her green school uniform and
climbs gingerly on to a desk at the front of the classroom. The shy
12-year-old holds up a brightly coloured picture and begins to explain
to her classmates what she has drawn. It is a scene played out in
schools all over the world, but for one striking difference: Omsyatte's
picture does not illustrate a recent family holiday, or jolly school
outing, but the day an Israeli military offensive killed her
nine-year-old brother and destroyed her home.

"Here is where they shot my brother Ibrahim, God
bless his soul. And here is the F16 plane that threw rockets into the
house and trees, and here is the tank that started to shoot," she says,
to a round of applause from the other children. The exercise is designed
to help the pupils at the school come to terms with the warfare that
has dominated their short lives; particularly the horrors of the 2008
Israeli military offensive Operation Cast Lead, which killed 1,400
Palestinians, and destroyed one in eight homes.

Like
hundreds of displaced Gazans, Omsyatte's family have spent more than a
year living in a tent on a site near their home. Little rebuilding work
has been done during this time - with supplies unable to pass into Gaza
because of the ongoing blockade imposed by Israel in 2007 - and groups
of children now pick their way through piles of rubble, kicking
footballs around the bombsites which used to be local landmarks.

Homelessness is just one of the issues facing the
780,000 Gazan children in the aftermath of the conflict, problems that
are explored in a revealing new documentary
Dispatches: Children of Gaza, to be screened tomorrow at 8pm on Channel
4. Perhaps the most disturbing of these is the emotional scars borne by
children who have survived the conflict; the Gaza Community Mental
Health Programme reports that the majority of children show signs of
anxiety, depression and behavioural problems.

Small
boys build toy rockets out of drinks bottles, and talk about the fake
guns they are going to buy with their pocket money. While boys the world
over are preoccupied with fighting and weapons, this takes on a more
sinister significance when the game isn't Cowboys vs Indians, but Jews
vs Arabs, and the children's make-believe warfare is chillingly
realistic.

These games may reflect the
children's desire for revenge against their neighbours, of which many
speak openly. "I think we are seeing a growing desire for violence, and
it saddens me," said Jezza Neumann, the Bafta-winning director
of the programme. "If they could get revenge legally, or saw someone
saying sorry, then perhaps they could come to terms with it, but there
has been no recourse. What you're seeing now may only be the tip of the
iceberg."

Mahmoud, 12, describes the day Israeli
soldiers knocked on the door and shot his father
dead, lying down in the dirt where his father fell in a heartbreaking
reconstruction, and describes the enormous changes it wrought upon him.
"Before the war, I was thinking about education, but after I started
thinking about becoming a fighter," he says, his thickly lashed brown
eyes staring straight into the camera. "God willing, if I can kill one
Israeli it will be better than nothing."

Desperate
to avenge his father's death, Mahmoud is encouraged by his uncle Ahmed,
a member of the terrorist group Islamic Jihad. Sitting Mahmoud down in
front of a martyrdom film,
Ahmed says, "Look how he doesn't feel a thing when he is detonated" as a
suicide bomber dies. Just a few hundred yards from the family's home is
a training camp for Gaza's fighters - both Hamas and Islamic Jihad -
where young men carrying rocket launchers are clearly visible.

While Mahmoud is desperate for revenge, his mother
weeps when she considers the possibility that he may become a martyr.
"It is an honour to die in the name of Allah, but I don't want to lose
my son," she said.

Some believe that with
Israel's tight restrictions on movement blocking conventional career
options for the 1.1 million people who live there, children may feel
they have no choice but to join resistance movements. Last week
Palestinians in the Gaza Strip lit 1,000 candles and held a peaceful
protest to mark 1,000 days of the Israeli blockade. During this time,
unemployment has risen to 45 per cent, with 76 per cent of households
now living in poverty.

"The children are
struggling with the idea of the future," Mr Neumann said. "Many
graduates in Gaza are unemployed, and they can't see a way forward
because they can't get out."

Families have been
fractured by the conflict, with many parents racked by guilt because
they couldn't protect their children from the violence, and now cannot
provide for them in the aftermath. Sitting in the tent which is now
their home, Omsyatte's father weeps as he talks of his regret over the
death of his son Ibrahim.

"The Israelis killed
my son while he was in my arms, and I could do nothing to protect him,"
he says, tears streaming down his face. "I couldn't even look at him
when he was taking his last breaths of life, because the soldiers were
right above my head. I was too much of a coward to even hug my son. I
was afraid that they would kill me. These things torment me."

Dr Ahmed Abu Tawanheena, the director of the Gaza
Community Mental Health Programme, says this issue is also affecting
children in Gaza. "They have lost their parents twice: first, during the
conflict, when they saw their parents terrified and unable to protect
them from the violence. Now, under the blockade, they see their parents
are still unable to provide for their basic needs, such

as shelter or food," he said. "It's a crisis which is
threatening families and communities across the Gaza Strip."

For some, this crisis has had a devastating impact on
family relationships,
with mental health professionals and NGOs linking a rise in domestic
violence with these feelings of guilt and impotence. A study by the
Palestinian Women's Information and Media Centre (PWIC) in March 2009
found that 77 per cent of women in the Gaza Strip are exposed to
domestic violence, while a survey by the UN Development Fund for Women
(Unifem) also indicated that violence against women increased during
periods of heavy conflict.

Many children are
suffering the physical effects of the conflict. One of these is
Mahmoud's nine-year-old sister Amal. Trapped under the rubble of her
home - which was destroyed by Israeli shells - for four days before she
was rescued, Amal was left with shrapnel lodged in her brain. Plagued by
headaches and nosebleeds, and unable to get the medical care she needs
in Gaza, Amal is lucky enough to be granted papers which allow her to
travel to nearby Tel Aviv to be examined by a specialist. However, her
experiences have left her so scared of Israelis that she doesn't want to
go.

Crouching over a colouring book, her curly
brown hair held back with pretty hair bands, she explained: "I'm scared
to go to Israel. From the Jews. I'm frightened they might kill me."

Many of the children in Gaza's Shefa hospital do not
have the option of leaving the strip, and the prognosis for children in
the oncology ward is bleak. Chemotherapy is not available in Gaza, and
many of the children on the ward have not been granted the papers they
need to seek the treatment readily available to Palestinians just across
the Israeli and Egyptian borders. One of these children is 10-year-old
Ribhye, crippled by advanced leukaemia and unable to leave Gaza. His
distraught father, sitting in a hospital room devoid of the equipment
and medicine his son so desperately needs, is devastated not to have
been granted leave to take Ribhye out of Gaza. "How do I get out? This
border is closed, that border is closed. What do I do?" he asked.

"The mortality rate for cancer in Gaza is much higher
than elsewhere," said Steve Sosebee, president of the Palestinian
Children's Relief Fund. "You have to get a permit if you want to cross
into Gaza and most of them are not granted. A lot of kids are dying as a
result of the decisions being made by the people in charge, whether
Hamas, the Egyptian government, the Israeli government."

Even the parents who have papers allowing their
children to leave don't fare much better. Eight-year-old leukaemia
sufferer Wissam was granted permission to cross into Egypt for
treatment, but has been waiting for weeks for the border crossing to be
opened. After being told that he would finally be allowed through after
sitting at the border for hours, the coach full of hospital patients was
turned away, and had to make the long drive back to the Nasser
hospital. Wissam's father desperately tried to find out from hospital
officials why the coach was turned back. "Every day the child stays here
is a danger to his life," he said, his words echoing the thoughts of so
many Palestinian parents.

'Dispatches:
Children of Gaza' airs tomorrow at 8pm on Channel 4 in Britain;
childrenofgazafund.org/

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