What it means to be a child in Palestine by Nazila Isgandarova*
A few days ago, the behavior of a little Palestinian girl joined by other children in her village was caught on video and went viral. The video demonstrated how this little girl was trying to bait Israeli soldiers in the West Bank. She was seen screaming at them and calling them “traitors,” expressing her wish to “smash their heads.” This video drew the attention of millions around the world.
Many comments on the video called this little girl a “brave young lady.” A senior Israel Defense Forces (IDF) official commented that the video was purposefully arranged to damage the reputation of the IDF. However, that minutes-long video also illustrated an anger mixed with fear and the psychological exploitation of children in Palestine. While watching the video, I kept asking why these children exhibit such extreme anger toward the Israeli soldiers. Why are they engaged in an “adult” type of communication? What prevents them from having a healthy childhood?
The answer to these questions is the stress and anxiety the children are subjected to daily due to violence, terrorism and the threat of war in Palestine.
The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) reported that since the beginning of the last six-day crisis between Israel and Hamas, at least 26 children were killed and more than 400 injured, some gravely, by Israeli attacks on Gaza. According to the CRC, on Nov. 18, for example, 7-year-old Sara, 6-year-old Jamal, 4-year-old Yusef and 2-year-old Ibrahim all died in an attack against the suspected home of a Hamas militant, which killed at least eight members of the same family. In southern Israel, 14 Israeli children were injured by shellfire launched by Hamas. UNICEF had also drawn attention to the fact that, due to Israeli rockets that had shattered their windows, many Palestinian children slept in the cold in Gaza. Others kept their windows open in order to avoid injury from shards of glass.
Research has confirmed that stress induced by emotional trauma in children affects their physical, psychological and emotional development. The majority of children exposed to terrorism or any other traumatizing event develop adult psychopathology. These children are also at a greater risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The symptoms of PTSD include shock, intense fear, tearfulness, anger, helplessness, nervousness, confusion, unwanted memories, decreased concentration, self-blame and many others. Palestinian children are continually exposed to violence and death, and their present and future are unpredictable. Children who are exposed to trauma in their lives, or witness the trauma of others, display disorganized or agitated behavior. They re-experience their trauma through play or art and have frightening dreams in which they encounter monsters or see themselves rescuing others. These children are experiencing intense fear, helplessness and horror. They lack healthy childhoods because they cannot even play in their front or backyards. They or their parents are afraid that Israeli soldiers might attack them or kill their surviving relatives. They witness the death of their friends almost every day.
Dr. M. Basher Ahmed, a former professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas’s Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, writes that the sense of helplessness creates additional anger in Palestinian children. They display a fight-or-flight response. When they throw stones at Israeli soldiers, they are expressing anger to cope with their trauma. He writes that children in Israel exposed to suicide bombings get the necessary support immediately, with most children getting treated by mental health professionals in Israel. These professionals are well-trained to identify post-traumatic symptoms in medical centers dedicated to the condition. The biomedical, psychotherapeutic, familial and social rehabilitation programs help these children regain their health. Palestinian children, on the other hand, do not have access to these essential services. They do not have the right psychological, social and medical help to support them as they deal with their symptoms and try to develop an optimistic view of life in the future.
It seems that children in Palestine are forgotten in the midst of the adult fighting that owns the land. The United Nations CRC last Thursday expressed its “deep concern at the devastating and lasting impact the crisis in Gaza and Israel is having on children.”
Those parties used to attacking and fighting civilians are disallowing children in Palestine to live their childhood, to play with their toys in the park with their family -- they are causing these children to live with the constant fear of war. The Palestinian children, however, only want peace. That can be felt in how 12-year-old Mohammed Radwan shyly expressed his wish in an interview with the AFP: “We don’t want the war -- it’s scary and awful. We want peace, we want a truce. When I hear the bombing, I lie on the sofa and cover myself with pillows to try to be safe. I try to hide myself as much as possible. Sometimes I go over to my mom and hold onto her, too.”
That short video of a “brave” Palestinian girl may have damaged the image of the IDF, but it also brought to the surface the anger and fear of the children of Palestine. It also demonstrated what the possible consequences would be for constant war in both Israel and Palestine: intergenerational anger and hatred.
*Dr. Nazila Isgandarova is an adjunct faculty member at Emmanuel College at the University of Toronto.