Gaza: Israel’s One Million Child Prison is a Mental Health Crisis

A vigil near the graves of Palestinian children who were killed in the latest Israeli war on Gaza. (Photo: Mahmoud Ajjour, The Palestine Chronicle)

By Omar Aziz

“Inflicting hurt on any child during the course of conflict is deeply disturbing,” said Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights last Thursday, voicing alarm at the number of Palestinian children killed this month by Israel.

“The killing and maiming of so many children this year is unconscionable,” she continued.

So what does it mean when Israel launches aerial assaults year after year with world-leading industrialized military technology on a besieged enclave of mostly children?

“International humanitarian law is clear. Launching an attack which may be expected to incidentally kill or injure civilians, or damage civilian objects, in disproportionate manner to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated, is prohibited. Such attacks must stop,” said Bachelet.

According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 47% of Gaza’s 2.2 million population are children, others place the percentage higher at 50%.

And Gaza’s population is notoriously crammed in, especially among the eight refugee camps officially recognized by UNRWA, which are considered some of the world’s most densely populated places. Yet each one is still considered a legitimate target by Israeli warplanes.

With this knowledge, what becomes unmistakably apparent is that each bomb Israel drops on the besieged enclave, war crime after war crime, is done so knowingly that children are the likely victims.

Whether it’s children massacred as ‘collateral damage’ in so-called ‘targeted precision-strikes’, or children struck for simply being Palestinians – just like the five Palestinian children killed in a missile strike while at their grandfather’s grave in Al-Falluja Cemetery, east of Jabalya, on August 7th. A crime Israel’s military first pretended it didn’t commit, a lie Western corporate media publications willfully parroted without hesitation despite Israel’s track record of spreading lies and disinformation.

Or children with no choice whatsoever but to absorb each scarring episode of Israel’s ground shaking destructive power while imprisoned in this tiny strip of land.

The figures are no longer shocking, but nightmarish – dystopian. A situation scarcely believable to those who have not witnessed the reality firsthand or paid attention to Palestinian testimonies.

Palestinian-American academic Yousef Munayyer says it is time to stop calling Gaza an ‘open-air prison’, but what it really is: a torture chamber.

Guess what? An engineered environment designed to incubate and inflict psychological trauma, physical suffering and economic deprivation has done just that. Quelle surprise.

Today, 80% of Gaza’s children now report living with depression, grief and fear according to Save the Children.

In its 2014 aggression on Gaza, Israel killed 547 Palestinian children in seven weeks. In May 2021, it killed 67 children there. And this month, at least 17 children have been killed in Gaza.

But these are not Gaza’s only child victims.

Right now there are one million children in Gaza who have been brutalized and traumatized from at least 29 military aggressions since 2003, each with voices to be heard, stories to be told and lives deserving of so much more than this.

Speaking on Palestine Deep Dive’s live show last week which focuses on Gaza’s child mental health crisis, 17-year-old writer and musician Hind Wihaidi tells viewers:

“The past three days when the aggression happened were really tragic for me. It gave me a lot of flashbacks of those aggressions that we’ve lived before.

“It got me thinking a lot about where I’m actually living, the prison that I’m actually in, me knowing that I might die literally any second while I’m talking to anyone, while I’m sitting, while I’m watching TV, while I’m thinking about something because this is what happened with other children.”

But while Palestinian children were attempting to adjust back to the ‘normality’ of siege and ongoing immiseration following the attacks, Israeli military pundits were taking to the airwaves to congratulate Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid on his “clean” operation.

Speaking to the daily Maariv’s FM radio station on Monday August 9, General Amos Yadlin, former head of Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate and senior Harvard fellow, rejoiced:

“It was a successful round. It was really clean, we hit hard the Hamas military wing [later correcting himself to say he meant Islamic Jihad], we hardly hit innocents and unaffiliated, there’s not one Israeli who was hit, I think it’s an exceptional achievement.” (Hebrew).

Meanwhile, Haaretz journalist Amos Harel and Neri Zilber of the Israel Policy Foreign failed to mention Palestinian civilian deaths in an hour-long podcast assessing the attacks on August 10th, instead praising Israel’s “pinpoint” strikes.

It was already known by this time that at least 15 Palestinian children had been killed, illuminating what Palestinians have said for decades; Palestinian erasure and the dehumanization of Palestinian children are the grotesque foundations upon which Israel’s apartheid and colonization flourishes.

Offering a mother’s perspective of raising children in Gaza, Palestinian author and mother of three Rana Shubair tells Palestine Deep Dive:

“I tried to protect [my children] from seeing images on TV, but the environment that our children live in is uncensored, meaning wherever they go, they will see pictures of martyrs.

“In the last aggression [May 2021], one of my daughter’s friends who was in their school got killed. I don’t think my daughters ever really got over her because one of them tells me that she always sees her in her dreams, and it’s very hard for them to just grasp the concept or the notion of death and all of that. All children here in Gaza, they’re very heroic, let’s say, because they have grown above their age and have been forced to absorb things that children in other parts of the world know nothing about. Ask any child here, they’ll tell you what kind of plane is hovering above, whether it’s a drone or an F-16. They know all of this war terminology, but as parents, we try to find, I guess, the right ways to deal with our children’s trauma.

With each aggression and with each month of Israel’s continuous hermetic siege and its resulting economic deprivation, Gaza children’s mental health predictably continues to deteriorate.

For instance, in 2018 60% of children there reported they feel less safe away from their parents, but just before the recent attacks this figure reached 90%, according to Save the Children.

In 2018, 50% of children reported feeling fearful, and 55% with feelings of grief and just months before this attack 78% of Gaza’s children reported feeling fearful and 84% with feelings of grief.

One can only imagine how they feel today.

During Palestine Deep Dive’s show, Dr. Yasser Abu Jamei, Director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, emphazises the continuous nature of traumatic events there which limit the applicability of disorders familiar to Western psychiatry, such as “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder”, making genuine recovery so difficult.

“First, the pre-traumatic event is not an easy, smooth-going life etc. No, we speak of blockade, we speak of occupation, we speak of more than two thirds of the population in Gaza being refugees. So we speak about decades. This doesn’t go only [back] to 1967, but it goes also to 1948. Then, not only that, but you live under blockade, not only that, but within that blockade you are exposed to large scale operations… and despite that, you hear all the time these cues, things that remind you of the traumatic events that are happening around you. You listen to the news, you see how things are on the heat. You look at the skies, you continuously hear the loud sounds of the drones and they all bring you the bad memories.

Then, in the aftermath… there isn’t really return to normal life. It’s again life as usual under occupation, under the drones, under the blockade etc. The traditional Western notion of post-traumatic stress disorder, I wouldn’t say it doesn’t apply to a place like Gaza, but I would say that the situation in Gaza is deeper than that. We cannot really just describe it as a PTSD in its simple notion. No, it’s far beyond that.”

In 1991, Israel ratified the UN’s convention on the Right of the Child, which says that all children have the fundamental rights to life, survival, development, protection from violence and an education that enables them to fulfill their potential.

Yet, under Israel’s apartheid, it violates this convention with impunity across Palestine. In Israel itself, Palestinian or Arab schools often receive almost six times less funding per child than schools for Jewish students, as they are ineligible for funding from Zionist institution. They then go on to face discrimination in job markets and are also subjected to Israel’s 65 racist laws.

In the West Bank, Palestinian children are subjected to discriminatory laws and practices. They are routinely denied the right to education when forced to wait at checkpoints, their classes can be disrupted by the Israeli military at any moment.

According to the Defense for Children International, in Palestine each year approximately 500 to 700 Palestinian children, some of them as young as 12 years old, are detained and prosecuted in Israel’s military kangaroo courts. The most common charge against them is stone throwing.

Israel’s disregard for Palestinian children’s most fundamental rights, including the very right to life itself, exposes its Israel’s commitment to achieving a future peace for what it is really is, a blatant lie.

But not only that, the international community’s overwhelming silence shows the dehumanization of Palestinian children extends well beyond the apartheid state of Israel.

In the aftermath of the latest attack, President Biden praised Israel for “defending its people” and its military systems “saving countless lives”.

Meanwhile this week, UK Conservative politicians competing to become the next Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, both seem to back moving the embassy to Jerusalem.

Instead of sanctions, incitement continues to be the order of the day from the West, with nothing put forward to deter Israel’s next brutal round of bombardments whenever they may occur. Weapons continue to flow and diplomatic cover continues to shield justice.

Yet, Palestinian children, who will be the architects of any genuine stable future, prove time and time again to profess a burning desire for a better life, a demand for freedom and to settle for nothing less than full liberation.

With world-leading literacy rates, forming dance troupes, parkour clubs and producing talented artists such as rising star thirteen-year-old rapper MC Abdel, Palestinian children in Gaza are still teaching the rest of the world life while walking through the wreckage:

“I always love to emphasize that positive side of us living in an open-air prison. We’re doing our best in here. As I said, we don’t have a lot of opportunities, but on the other side, we’re trying to create those opportunities out of all the rubble that we’ve been living in for more than 15 years,” Hind tells Palestine Deep Dive.

Dr. Yasser Abu Jamei also vividly illustrates this truth on Palestine Deep Dive, describing how he saw Gaza’s children proudly wearing the Eid clothes they had not been able to wear due to Israel’s attacks in May 2021:

“It was a very ironic combination. You drive your car or you walk the street, you see in one hand the debris and the destruction and the destroyed houses, and on the other hand, you see very well-dressed children, moving across the debris trying to go to school and get their certificates”.

Of course, the mental health crisis in Gaza and the ongoing injustices of Israel’s brutal apartheid and colonization are not limited to children, they affect Palestinians of all ages.

But recently, what has become abundantly clear is that every bomb Israel drops, and every day Israel’s siege of Gaza continues is an intolerable injustice against those universally deemed most innocent, children.

Under Israel’s siege, Gaza continues to be a one million child prison and it is long overdue for governments across the West to finally acknowledge this truth to end Israel’s impunity and for international institutions including the United Nations to act upon this reality without hesitation.

– Omar Aziz is Associate Director at Palestine Deep Dive. He contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.

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