Horror, fear, panic, anxiety. All of these go hand in hand with war, as Israelis and Palestinians have come to know time and time again. With each new conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, the television screens become inundated with stories detailing the horrific violence highlighted by footage of sirens blaring and images of blood in the street. While it is easy for us, those who live outside the war zone, to turn off the television screen when the images and stories become too much, for many it is not so easy. For many must continue to live amid such chaos because they have nowhere else to go; it is their home. And so those fortunate enough to survive rocket attacks must continue to live as survivors, always carrying with them the memories of destruction, war, and death.
This is especially true of children living in both southern Israel and Gaza who must live amid this unfolding violence. Among these children who experience a first-hand perspective of war, the potential for developing symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder becomes a serious problem which threatens to affect an entire generation. In southern Israel, the Israel Trauma Coalition has sought to combat this threat by reaching out to those who might be experiencing trauma and post-trauma effects.
The post-traumatic behavior exhibited by the children can manifest itself in different ways, says Roni Lior, the ITC’s project coordinator for Sderot and the Gaza region. Anything from “refusing to walk to school along a route where a rocket once fell – to intrusive thoughts where you feel like you’re re-experiencing the traumatic event; and hyper-vigilance, where everything makes you jump.”
The children of southern Israel have had to live in an environment that is constantly threatened by rocket attacks for the past fourteen years. The blaring sirens of the Code Red alarm system are as common as they are unpredictable and force people to rush to their nearest bomb shelters. Organizations like the Israel Trauma Coalition have been setup in order to help populations respond and deal with the psychological stress caused by these frequent attacks. Recently they have been receiving a number of requests from new regions farther from Gaza due to the increased range of the rockets fired from Hamas, including Central Israel, Jerusalem, the Western Galilee, and farther into the Negev.
The ITC has setup what it refers to as ‘resilience centers’ in the region to assist people suffering from post-traumatic anxiety. Since the beginning of the most recent conflict, these centers have treated hundreds of people in one-on-one and group settings. The centers often hold multiple support groups daily and can be extremely cathartic for patients. “In second-tier towns like Netivot and Ofakim, the municipalities are placing informal education teams in local bomb shelters. ITC is supporting this with sessions in art and drama therapy. We hope we can get resources to provide therapeutic board and card games developed by our resilience-center professionals to help children talk about emotions and find inner strength,” explains Lior.
There has also been an increasing amount of callers to the ITC hotlines in recent weeks, where phone counselors coach and console callers in relaxation techniques and breathing exercises. In a single day, the hotline office reported that they received upwards of 6,000 calls; many were from children. It is difficult to say how potent the lingering post-traumatic effects experienced by children and other civilians will be and for how long it will continue to haunt them, but it is certain that this is something that is not likely to change soon. This is because it is difficult to heal from anxiety from conflict when you are living in an active conflict zone. The ITC reports that 75 and 94 percent of children aged 4 to 14 in southern Israel have shown symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Similarly in Gaza, a study by British and Palestinian academics entitled ‘Trauma, PTSD, Anxiety and Coping Strategies among Palestinians Adolescents Exposed to War in Gaza’ concluded that more than half of children aged 15 to 18 years old showed displayed behavioral signs of full of partial PTSD.
Due to the Hamas government disinterest in building bomb shelters, instead investing money and concrete to build tunnels into Israel in order to attack the country, there are virtually no bomb shelters in Gaza. Thus it is often very difficult for civilians to escape to areas that are designated safe. This is especially challenging given the Hamas strategy of firing rockets from heavily populated areas (Over a Dozen Hamas Terrorists Admit to Use of Hospitals, Kindergartens and Mosques for Military Activity).
As a result, the violence is frequently on full display for children on both sides to see and experience. The study elaborates that “such traumatic experiences severely deteriorate children’s sleep and cause uncontrollable fears among babies and children, causing anxiety, panic attacks, and poor concentration.”
It is impossible to perceive the emotional toll exacted on children who have already witnessed so much violence in their early, formative years. No easier is it to imagine the long-term damage this trauma will cost both sides in keeping the memory of violence alive and perpetuating the conflict through the generations. What is clear however is that if this problem is not addressed in a timely and tactful way – if these children are left with no positive outlets through which to express and resolve the trauma they have experienced – then its aftereffects will continue to permeate the psyche of the next generation of Israeli and Palestinian youth.
Contributed by CAMERA intern Alexander Dumanis