Abdullah (in red shirt) and his little brother (r) play “Arabs and Israelis” with their friends in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah. (Photo M. Omer)
The Sept. 6, 2010 issue of the leading German newspaper Der Spiegel included the article "Studies Show Nurture at Least as Important as Nature" by Joerge Blech on the findings of a groundbreaking study on intelligence. Researchers found that prolonged poverty, stress and other environmental factors—including war and the deprivation of basic needs—directly affect a child's intelligence and, therefore, his or her life prospects.
Previously it was believed that intelligence was 80 percent genetic. These latest findings, however, show that at least 50 percent of an individual's intelligence is actually determined by environmental factors. More specifically: the more stress, the more arrested mental development. As one of the researchers, Richard Nisbett, a psychologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, noted: "During World War II, some children in Holland started school late because of the Nazi occupation—with momentous consequences. The average IQ for these children was seven points lower than for children who came of school age after the siege."
The Nazi persecution and World War II in Europe, which lasted from 1933 to 1945, affected an entire generation of children. By contrast, Israel's dispossession and occupation of Palestine has lasted some six decades—and counting. Generations of Palestinian children have been affected physically, psychologically and materially. Since Ariel Sharon instigated the al-Aqsa intifada in late 2000, Israeli repression has been most restrictive, and most steadily escalated, in Gaza. According to "Gaza Strip: A Humanitarian Implosion," a 16-page BBC report released in March 2008: "In September 2007, an UNRWA survey in the Gaza Strip revealed that there was a nearly 80 percent failure rate in schools grades four to nine, with up to 90 percent failure rates in Mathematics. In January 2008, UNICEF reported that schools in Gaza had been cancelling classes that were high on energy consumption, such as IT, science labs and extra curricular activities."
The report adds that "The number of people living in absolute poverty in Gaza has increased sharply. Today, 80 percent of families in Gaza currently rely on humanitarian aid, compared to 63 percent in 2006. This decline exposes unprecedented levels of poverty and the inability of a large majority of the population to afford basic food."
War, poverty, stress caused by financial and personal insecurity due to living under occupation, the constant scarcity of basic necessities including food, sewer treatment, water and medical care, the threat of constant attack by military forces, forced imprisonment, lack of movement, lack of rights—these are the daily realities of children in Gaza, realities they, their parents and their grandparents have known their whole lives.
This is the recurring nightmare that is Gaza.
A Child's Life
At first glance, 13-year-old Khalil seems like your average teenager. His young body is just beginning to mature, and he is curious, easily distracted and slightly mischievous. A closer inspection, however, reveals a vacant look in his eyes more associated with age. In fact, if one saw only his eyes, one would guess Khalil is close to 50, not 13. What's missing is that sense of invincibility and heightened optimism common among youth his age elsewhere in the world. Where American and European children talk about the latest rap band, their school vacation or their latest crush, Khalil simply shrugs apathetically.
"Excuse me, but the war has wiped blank all my beautiful memories," he says somewhat sarcastically. "The front half of my house was damaged, so that I am transferred to a life-situation that I never dreamed I would be experiencing. After years of living in a large house," he explains, "I now live at Al Zahra city."
Khalil's home was destroyed in January 2009, during Israel's "Operation Cast Lead" assault, plunging his middle-class family into homelessness in an instant. Unlike in a natural disaster, insurance funds and global assistance were not available. His situation was man-made—and Khalil is far from alone.
Still traumatized, he remembers a friend of his being blown to pieces when an Israeli missile struck his neighborhood.
Understandably, these are things he would rather forget—but can't. Because of Israel's siege, few resources are available to help him cope with his trauma and move on with his life.
The children's stories are difficult to hear, of course. But as any parent knows, the pain of their children is felt two-fold by those responsible for care giving. Love, after all, can go only so far.
A Parent's Frustration
Abu Abdullah of Rafah expresses the pain of most parents in Gaza: the inability to protect his children. His wife frets because she cannot comfort them. The younger children, aged 10, 7 and 4, wet their beds and she feels helpless to quell their fears. "It's like a cancer you can't control or stop," Umm Abdullah says.
Nodding, Abu Abdullah sits on the stoop of his house watching his children play "Arabs and Israelis," the occupied territory's version of "Cowboys and Indians" or "Cops and Robbers." In the role of a soldier, his oldest son, Abdullah, aims a plastic Chinese toy gun at his brother's head. "I am going to kill you right now," the teenager says.
The game is popular among children who've had few outlets to channel their emotions since Operation Cast Lead. Abu Abdullah would rather they play soccer, but this game reflects the reality of their lives and gives his children some sense of control.
Even when he's awake Abu Abdullah's 12-year-old son suffers from nightmares about Israeli F-16s bombing his neighborhood. In his dreams, all the children are running away from home or school. Some of his friends are injured, others dead, and ambulance sirens scream incessantly in his head. But it's more than a dream: it's what he actually witnessed, and it replays in his mind ad nauseam, rarely giving him peace.
Nor are Abdullah's fears imaginary. When his mother sent him to buy lentils from the nearby grocery store less than three minutes away, the boy returned home with no lentils and his pants soaked in urine. Asked about the lentils, Abdullah began crying and told his mother in a voice quaking with fear that "the drones are bombing."
Teachers who work with at risk students in inner-city neighborhoods around the world can attest to the effect poverty, violence, guns and fear have on the children forced by circumstance to live in these situations. Gaza is the inner city on steroids. Its children deal not only with gangs in the form of resistance, but they also must endure the assaults—usually in the middle of the night—of the world's fourth most powerful military. The effects on the children are predictable: Fights and violent behavior, in schools and on the streets, have escalated in frequency and intensity, according to psychologists who visit Gaza's schools.
Psychologist Zahia Al Qarra with the Gaza Community Mental Health Program (GCMHP) says that 79.9 percent of the children she sees feel they are in a big prison. Another 79.3 percent say that they cannot afford to buy what they need or want.
According to a recent GCMHP study, 20 percent of Gaza's children suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD], and another 13 percent are diagnosed with depression. In Gaza's UNRWA-run schools, where literacy and academic standards are usually high, 9,000 primary students failed their school work and exams last academic year.
Another GCMHP psychiatrist confirms that cases of disease, behavioral problems and psychological traumas have multiplied among Gaza's children, citing increases in autistic behavior, bedwetting, thumb-sucking, nail biting, anger, slow-motion flashbacks, reliving war scenes in familiar neighborhoods, fear of the dark, agoraphobia, panic at the sound of planes overhead, and disinterest in taking part in social and group activities—all symptoms of PTSD and depression.
"It's not just the children" says Abu Diaa, a father of seven. "It's also we adults who need psychological counseling."
Like most parents in Gaza, Abu Diaa, whose only income is a disability pension from a 2003 injury, worries constantly about finding food and clothing for his children.
"It is two different types of traumas," Abu Diaa explains, "living in fear of attacks and worrying about not having a job to protect one's family."
Psychiatrists and general practitioners in Gaza observe that parents often do not realize the extent to which their children are traumatized. Many are trying to deal with their own pain and stress and often neglect or delay their own treatment. Add to this the stigma about seeking psychological treatment for themselves or their children. Palestinian and Arab society does not embrace victimhood, and seeking help is often equated with admitting one is powerless and therefore a victim. GCMHP director Dr. Ahmed Abu Tawahinah notes that when a patient visits a doctor, he "never says I am depressed or I have PTSD." Rather he'll say something like, "I have a headache."
A Society Under Stress
The physical and psychological effects of Gaza's plight are pervasive. According to the GCMHP's Al Qarra, divorces have increased, often due to poverty. When parents are unable to fully care for their children due to their own trauma, she adds, increasing numbers of children are forced to leave home or run away. They find themselves on the streets, digging through garbage containers for a few things to sell to make a bit of money or eat. Incidents of sexual abuse, previously unheard of in Gaza, also are being reported.
This past September, 20 months after Israel's war on Gaza, Dr. Jamil Al Tahrawi, a university lecturer in social psychology, decided to analyze the art work of children in Gaza to try and assess the depth of their psychological trauma. He asked 455 children to draw whatever they wanted. More than 82.3 percent drew images directly related to Israeli attacks on Gaza. Some of these drawings show Palestinian resistance fighters, Israeli soldiers, tanks, bulldozers, ambulances, helicopters, F-16s, and pilotless Israeli drones.
The children mainly used light colors in their drawings, avoiding dark colors as if they were afraid of them. Dr. Al Tahrawi and other doctors in Gaza saw a clear indication in the drawings of trauma following war crimes similar to those mentioned in Judge Richard Goldstone's report for the U.N. Human Rights Council. Indeed, Dr. Al Tawahiha confides, all 1.6 million residents of Gaza are traumatized to some extent—"including myself."
As Israel continues its attacks on Gaza, the nightmare continues for Abdullah and all residents of Gaza.
Nearly two years after Operation Cast Lead, Abdullah still is afraid to sleep, afraid to play and afraid to walk to school in the daytime, even with his father by his side. One can only guess at the long-term physical, emotional and intellectual effects Israel's continued occupation and siege will have on his life and millions of other Palestinians. One thing is certain, however: It is affecting everyone.
Award-winning journalist Mohammed Omer reports on the Gaza Strip, and maintains the Web site www.rafahtoday.org. He can be reached at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.