The National – 6 January 2009
JERUSALEM // The four-storey building of the Community Mental Health Programme in Gaza City is damaged, its walls still standing but the offices of its 150 employees wrecked by an Israeli bombing raid last week.
As Gaza’s 1.5 million inhabitants waited anxiously for Israel’s ground invasion to unfold, Ahmad Abu Tawhina, the mental health programme’s director general, said its services were needed more than ever.
Estimates from the United Nations are that at least one quarter of the more than 500 Gazans killed so far in Israel’s operations are women and children. More than five times that number are wounded.
But, psychologists said, none of Gaza’s civilians are being spared feelings of fear and terror as the Israeli army moves deeper into the tiny enclave.
Dr Tawhina admitted there was little in the current circumstances his staff could do. Their computers and records have been destroyed and they are working from home, largely without electricity, phones or the freedom to move about.
Surveys in recent years have shown the rapid deterioration of the mental health of Gazans, especially children, who make up more than half of the Strip’s population.
According to a study by Dr Tawhina’s programme, conducted before Israel’s current operations, every child in Gaza had been exposed to at least nine shocking events. Many had seen people wounded or killed; 95 per cent had heard explosions from shelling and 45 per cent said they had seen Israeli soldiers beating or insulting relatives.
As a result, more than 80 per cent of children were diagnosed as suffering from either moderate or major post-traumatic disorders. The survey found that more than one third of boys between eight and 12 said they wished to die in a suicide attack.
Research conducted by Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, in 2006 similarly discovered that 98 per cent of children had either experienced first hand or witnessed incidents involving shootings or explosions. As a result, bed-wetting, night terrors and emotional disorders were common.
Eyad Sarraj, a psychiatrist and founder of the mental health programme, said his family was braced for the battles between the Israeli army and Hamas that they fear may soon reach their neighbourhood.
Dr Sarraj has questioned the rationale for Israel’s invasion of Gaza to “root out” militant groups. “When children see that their father is unable to guarantee their safety, they will opt for someone else to do it for them. And that means that one day they will join militant groups, possibly even more extreme than Hamas itself.
“Israel is trying to give itself security, but it is doing exactly the opposite by encouraging more extremism among the Palestinians.”
Before Israel’s tanks started rolling into Gaza on Saturday night, a major topic on local radio shows was how parents could keep their children feeling secure as Israel carried out its aerial bombardment.
Dr Tawhina, a regular guest, had little concrete comfort to offer given that there is nowhere to hide and everywhere is a potential target. Keep children indoors and distract them with games and activities, he said.
The staff of the mental health programme call this Gaza syndrome, a living nightmare of imprisonment under siege and military assault that gets worse by the day.
Mental health workers believe that Israeli policies in Gaza have been designed for some time to inflict maximum psychological damage on Gazans.
After the withdrawal of Jewish settlers in 2005, Israeli fighter planes began regularly creating deafening sonic booms during night-time flights over the Strip. Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert, justified the practice, saying: “I want nobody to sleep at night in Gaza.”
A year ago, when the blockade of Gaza was already starving inhabitants of food, fuel and medicine, Mr Olmert delivered a speech in which he said: “There is no justification for demanding we allow residents of Gaza to live normal lives while shells and rockets are fired from their streets.”
Nabila Espanioly, a psychologist in Nazareth who specialises in childhood development, said that, although television showed the physical effects of Israel’s invasion on civilians, it would not be there to record the psychological aftershock.
“Children more than adults have not yet developed the mechanisms to cope with feelings of helplessness and powerlessness. The violence Gaza’s children are witnessing and experiencing becomes the model for future behaviour.
“This can already be seen in the role-playing games common among children in the occupied territories of being soldiers and gunmen. In the long-term, they will seek to deal with their psychological trauma and regain a sense of power through violence because they have no other model. We are seeing the next generation of suicide bombers being created right now.”
Ms Espanioly said these post-traumatic effects on children’s mental health were widely understood. “Israeli strategists must be aware of this, so one has to wonder how they think such … attacks on Gaza are going to bring them peace or security.”