Sunday, October 11, 2009

Gaza: The Forgotten Story [Part III]

Shattered Minds and the Children of Gaza [Part III]

By Aditya Ganapathiraju

© 2009 Eman Mohammed

It’s the most terrifying place I’ve ever been in… it’s a horrifyingly sad place because of the desperation and misery of the way people live. I was unprepared for camps that are much worse than anything I saw in South Africa.– Professor Edward Said 1993 [1]

They may be living but they're not alive. – Journalist Philip Rizk [2]

Gaza is a place that needs a million psychologists.— Ayed, a psychotherapist from Northern Gaza [3]

Over 40 years of Israeli military occupation have had a devastating effect on Gaza; airstrikes, artillery shelling, ground invasions, jet flybys and their sonic booms have all led to an epidemic of suffering among Gaza’s most vulnerable inhabitants.[4]

Soon after the recent winter Israeli assault, a group of scholars at the University of Washington discussed different aspects of the situation in Gaza and the occupied Palestinian Territories. Dr. Evan Kanter, UW school of medicine professor and the current president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, delivered a somber talk describing the mental health situation among Gaza’s population.[5]

Dr. Kanter cited studies that revealed 62 % of Gaza’s inhabitants reported having a family member injured or killed, 67% saw injured or dead strangers and 83% had witnessed shootings. In a study of high school aged children from southern refugee camps in Rafah and Kahn Younis, 69% of the children showed symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress (PTS), 40% showed signs of moderate or severe depression, and a whopping 95% exhibited severe anxiety. Seventy percent showed limited or no ability to cope with their trauma. All of this was before the last Israeli invasion.

Dr. Eyad El-Sarraj, head of the Gaza Community Mental Program, and whom Dr. Kanter described as a “medical hero” working under seemingly impossible conditions, has produced “some of the best research in the world on the impact of war on civilian populations.” In a 2002 interview he said that 54% of children in Gaza had symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress, along with 30% of adults.[6] The hardest hit were young ones who had their homes bulldozed or who lost loved ones like their mothers, he said. Again, these figures were obtained well before conditions dramatically deteriorated.

Gaza is a land of youth. About 45% of the population is 14 years old or younger and about 60% are 19 years and younger, political economist Dr. Sara Roy said. [7] With such a young population facing constant violence, the long-term effects are incalculable.

Recent studies by international researchers and the Gaza Community Mental Health program revealed more worrying figures.[8]

Of a representative sample of children in Gaza, more than 95% experienced artillery shelling in their area or sonic booms of low flying jets. Ninety-four percent recalled seeing mutilated corpses on TV while some 93% witnessed the effects of aerial bombardments on the ground.

More than 70% of children in Gaza said they lacked water, food and electricity during the most recent attacks, and a similar percentage said they had to flee to safety during the recent attacks.

Additionally, 98.7% of the traumatized children reported that they did not feel safe in their homes. More than 95% of the children felt that they were unable to protect themselves or their family members causing a feeling of utter powerlessness only compounded by a sense of loss over the lives they could have had, safe and boring lives that many take for granted.

A whole generation is being lost to the horrors of large-scale military violence and a brutal occupation. In front of many distraught members in the audience, Kanter described another study that showed that witnessing severe military violence results in more aggression and antisocial behavior among children, along with the “enjoyment of aggression.” There are similar studies among Israeli children who witness terrorist attacks.

Post Traumatic Stress disorder, Dr. Kanter said, is an “engine that perpetuates violent conflict.” It leads to three characteristic symptoms. The first involves reexperiencing the traumatic events in the form of the nightmares, debilitating flashbacks, and terrifying memories that haunt people for years afterwards. Other people may develop avoidance symptoms in which they become isolated and emotionally numb, deadened to the world around them. The third symptom involves hyper arousal, which may lead to excessive anger, insomnia, self-destructive behavior, and a hypervigilant state of mind. Other maladies like poor social functioning, depression, suicidal thoughts, a lack of trust, family violence are all associated with PTS.

The most recent study however, revealed that in the aftermath of the most recent assault on Gaza an unbelievable 91.4% of children in Gaza displayed symptoms of moderate to very severe PTS. Only about 1% of the children showed no signs of PTS

Try to imagine an area with this many people—the city you live in for example—where 9 out of 10 children exhibited symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress. What would daily life be like? What would the future hold for your city's youth?

Particularly horrifying about the situation is that there is no “post” trauma for most in Gaza. Whereas soldiers who endure traumatic experiences in a war zone can return home to relative calm and seek treatment, the people in Gaza continue to held in what one Israeli rights group labeled the “largest prison on Earth”[10]—a methodically “de-developed” island of misery isolated from the rest of the world. The fate of the 1.5 million “unpeople” trapped there is of no concern to the occupying army or its international backers.[11]

This will be the enduring legacy of the Israeli occupation.

One of the most distressing prospects for peace are studies of similar war-torn populations like Kosovo and Afghanistan that showed that military violence often leads to widespread feelings of hatred and the simmering urge for revenge. One can easily predict the future consequences of a large number of young people exposed to this level of trauma.

As Dr. Eyad El-Sarraj warned soon after the offensive,

Palestinian children in the first intifadah 20 years ago threw stones at Israeli tanks trying to wrest freedom from Israeli military occupation. Some of those children grew up to become suicide bombers in the second intifadah 10 years later. It does not take much to imagine the serious changes that will befall today's children.[12]

Women in the war zone are have a unique perspective to share, yet their story is an all too familiar narrative: violence that leads to anger, vengeance, and the destruction of the bonds that tie a society together. Tihani Abed Rabbu, a mother who lost her teenage son, brother, and close friend, spoke of her fears:

What worries me is the safety of my family, my sons and my husband. My husband is going through a difficult time, a crazy time. He wants to affiliate with Hamas, he wants to get revenge after what they [Israel, I think] have done to us. How do you expect us to be peaceful after they have killed my son and turned my family into angry people - as they refer to us, "terrorists." I cannot calm my family down.[13]

Chris Hedges, former New York Times Middle East Bureau Chief, reminds us that,

A father or a mother whose child dies because of a lack of vaccines or proper medical care does not forget. A boy whose ill grandmother dies while detained at an Israel checkpoint does not forget. All who endure humiliation, abuse and the murder of family members do not forget. This rage becomes a virus within those who, eventually, stumble out into the daylight.[14]

Despite some positive steps towards regaining some sense of normalcy, mostly from small non-governmental groups and international activists, the crushing siege continues and basic conditions of life continue to deteriorate. For many, hope is fading. Despair is spreading.

“The breakdown of an entire society is happening in front of us,” Harvard specialist Sara Roy warned. Many share Roy’s fears that “What looms is no less than the loss of entire generation of Palestinians,” which she fears may have occurred already.[15]

In the face of this onslaught however, lies a stubborn resistance. This resistance takes many forms—the one most often seen in the US is that of the few who see armed conflict as the only path to liberation.

“While some Palestinians return Israeli violence with further violence,” journalist Philip Rizk said, “the vast majority does not.” Many bear invisible scars but they nevertheless go on with their daily lives: put their children through school, study and try to do well in exams, seek to serve their home and community, laugh and play, and ultimately try to retain their sense of dignity while living under foreign occupation.

As Rizk observed, “the Arabic word for such everyday acts of non-violent protest is sumoud, which means steadfastness, perseverance.” [16]

© 2009 Eman Mohammed

This essay is a part III of a longer series on Gaza.

Eman Mohammed is a 21-year old award-winning photojournalist who lives in Gaza. Her photos will be available soon in the Seattle area. For more information, contact Amineh at amineh.ayyad [at]

1. Edwards Said and David Barsamian ,The Pen and the Sword, Common Courage Press, 1994, page 99

2. “'Gaza wears a face of misery,' Adam Makary, Al Jazeera” April 4, 2009

3. “Young Freud in Gaza” Al Jazeera, June 18, 2009

4. “Israel’s ‘Crime Against Humanity,’ Chris Hedges, Truthdig, December 15, 2008

5. “Gaza: What Next? A Teach-In on the Humanitarian Crisis in Gaza” UW Global Health, February 5, 2009

6. “Clips from Dying to Live, a documentary film by Amineh Ayyad about health and human rights in Palestine. Shot in 2002.

7. “Sara Roy - Beyond Occupation” Australian Broadcasting Corp. October 14, 2008, Part 17, 1:03:00

8. Gaza Community Mental Health Program Additional figures from recent studies reveal the following conclusions (from a June 3 press release):

· 66.6% of the children appeared to have some symptoms of anxiety and psychological fears. 42.0% of the children expect events similar to those they passed through.

· 36.4% of the children feel disturbance and tension when experiencing events reminding them of the tragic war.

· 98.5% of children did not feel secure during the war due to their sense of powerlessness to protect themselves and the inability of others to protect them.

· 61.5% of the parents indicated the emergence of unusual behaviors among their children (such as continuous crying, and restlessness).

· 40.6% of parents indicated that their children have problems with their peers.

· 82.1% of the children expressed their conviction that Gaza is an unsafe place.

· 73.5% of the children had fears of being targeted and killed.

· 76.6% of children had fears of occurrence of what happened to them during the war.

9. GCHMP, Thabet, et al., “Trauma, grief, and PTSD in Palestinian children victims of War on Gaza”

10. “ Gaza Prison: Freedom of Movement to and from the Gaza Strip on the Eve of the Disengagement Plan”

“The Gaza Strip-One Big Prison” B’tselem

11. “’Good News,’ Iraq and Beyond,” Noam Chomsky, ZNet, February 16, 2008

12. “A 14-year-old in Gaza has one question: Why?” Eyad El-Sarraj, January 11, 2009, Boston Globe

“Cast Lead: As many as 352 children killed” Defense for Children International, Sept 3, 2009

13. “Women in the war zone: Gaza” Helena Cobban July 7, 2009

“Gaza conflict: Views on Hamas” BBC, July 7, 2009

14. “Israel’s ‘Crime Against Humanity,’ Chris Hedges, Truthdig, December 15, 2008

15. “Destroying Gaza,” Sara Roy, The Electronic Intifada, 9 July 2009

16. “'Gaza wears a face of misery,' Adam Makary, Al Jazeera” April 4, 2009

Gaza: The Forgotten Story [II]

What a Siege Looks Like

By Aditya Ganapathiraju

Why are people on Gaza so unhappy? Well, if you had to live in a prison, wouldn't you be unhappy?— Former CIA officer Robert Baer[1]

It’s the most terrifying place I’ve ever been in… it’s a horrifyingly sad place because of the desperation and misery of the way people live. I was unprepared for camps that are much worse than anything I saw in South Africa.– Professor Edward Said 1993[2]

They may be living but they're not alive. – Journalist Philip Rizk[3]

“Gaza is an example of a society that has been deliberately reduced to a state of abject destitution,” Sara Roy wrote in July. It has led to “mass suffering, created largely by Israel,” and aided by the active participation of the United States, European Union, and Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. [1]

The Israeli policy of isolating Gaza from the West Bank has been a gradual process that started in the early 1990s. It tightened soon after Hamas’ electoral victory in 2006, and turned even more devastating after Hamas’s 2007 takeover, degrading the society to the point where 96 percent of Gaza's population of 1.5 million is dependent on humanitarian aid for basic survival. [2]

This “perverse” situation is unique in international affairs in that humanitarian groups are sustaining the Israeli occupation by providing care for a civilian population and territory whose humanitarian needs and economy are being deliberately decimated for political reasons, with full backing of the Israeli High Court, Roy explained. [3]

The UN recently reported that 1.1 million people, or 75% of the population there are food insecure. Some 70-80% of Gazans live on less than a dollar a day and the unemployment rate is around 60%. [4]

The UN says about 10,000 Gaza residents have no access to a water network - while about 60% -- about 1 million people – don’t have access to water daily and receive water only intermittently.[5] The water consumption of Gazans is less than a third of what Israelis who live a short distance away use.[6] Ultimately, the crippling Israeli siege has degraded the water situation in Gaza to the point that the entire system “could collapse at any minute,” which “could take centuries to reverse,” according to International Committee of the Red Cross and UN officials. [7]

In a similarly precarious situation, the sewage system is also being prevented from being repaired by the blockage of spare parts. As a result, twenty million gallons of raw and untreated sewage has to be dumped into the Mediterranean every day, according to local officials.[8]

Forty-six percent of all children suffer from acute anemia there, former UN official and international Law Prof. Richard Falk said.[9] He adds that thousands of hearing aids are needed for widespread deafness due to sonic booms from Israeli jets. The restrictions on travel access alone has killed an estimated 260 Palestinians since the blockade escalated in 2007.[10]

The scale and intensity of his type of deprivation is impossible to convey through numbers, but try to imagine if three quarters of the people in your city could not find enough food and water to feed themselves or their children, where the overwhelming majority of them were unemployed, where nearly everyone lived on less than a dollar a day, and this is crucial, that all of this was the planned result of political decisions of a foreign government that has held you under military occupation for over four decades.

Even today, the most basic commodities for life still continue to be barred by the Israeli government. Materials like wood for doors or cement for rebuilding in the aftermath of the destruction left by the last attack remained barred.

No electrical appliances, like refrigerators or washing machines, and no parts for cars are allowed. Also restricted are “fabrics, threads, needles, candles, matches, mattresses, sheets, blankets, cutlery, crockery, cups, glasses, musical instruments, books, tea, coffee, sausages, semolina, chocolate, sesame seeds, nuts, milk products in large packages, most baking products, light bulbs, crayons, clothing and shoes.” [11]

School supplies too, are blocked from entering. More than 100 trucks full of stationary are still awaiting clearance to enter Gaza. All of the 387 government-run and 33 private schools, which serve more than 250,000 students, lack essential supplies. Draconian restrictions on glass, wood, and other building materials, has kept the hundreds of schools damaged during the assault remaining in terrible condition. [12]

When an occupying army blocks, tea, blankets, crayons, and school stationary from entering the “largest prison on Earth,” severely restricts essentials like fuel and medicine, makes travel in and out all but impossible, and exercises complete control over its borders, airspace, and seas, the pretense of “security” seems dubious at best, and suggests that turning Gazans into beggars and Gaza into a “depoliticized humanitarian catastrophe” is precisely the plan.[13]

Perhaps former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s advisor Dov Weisglass was describing Israeli policy accurately when he said of the Gaza blockade, “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.” One might ask if he includes the newborn infants, impoverished elderly, and deathly ill among those to be “put on a diet.” [14]

“What possible benefit can be derived from an increasingly impoverished, unhealthy, densely crowded and furious Gaza alongside Israel?,” Sara Roy asked. [15]

Six months have passed since international donors pledged almost $5 billion in aid to the devastated territory, yet “not one penny” has actually reached inside the borders of Gaza, according to the UN, mainly due to the tight blockade. [16]

This “macabre” situation is not the result of an earthquake or flood but rather the predictable consequence of well-planned decisions by Israeli officials, backed by their judicial body, along with complicit Western powers such as the US and EU.

Israeli Professor Avi Shlaim observed that the major powers were “imposing economic sanctions not against the occupier but against the occupied, not against the oppressor but against the oppressed.” [17]

The January 2008 testimony of Gaza Community Mental Health Program Director Eyad Al Sarraj offered a glimpse into what the stranglehold of Gaza looked like from the ground:

[The] Israeli military establishment decided to stop power supply and fuel to Gaza… food and humanitarian aid are not allowed in. My step son is on ventilator for asthma every night. What will happen to him when our generator is not running anymore? What will happen to hospitals, vaccines and blood banks? What will happen to patients on dialysis machines, and to babies in incubators? [18]

This was all before the brutal attacks this winter. The scale of destruction left behind has been covered by numerous writers, human rights groups, and most recently by the comprehensive Goldstone report. What has received little attention though, is the epidemic of mental anguish resulting from decades of oppression.

[The story of mental health in Gaza is covered in Part III]

  1. If Gaza falls . . .” Sara Roy, the London Review of Books, January 1, 2009

2. “Destroying Gaza,” Sara Roy, The Electronic Intifada, July 9, 2009

3. “Sara Roy - Beyond Occupation” Australian Broadcasting Corp. October 14, 2008, Chapter 8 Making Palestinians Aid-Dependent

“Israeli Supreme Court Fiddles While Gaza Starves”

4. Israel's Gaza blockade crippling reconstruction,” Guardian, September 18, 2009

Palestinian Center for Human Rights Weekly Report September 10-16

5. “Analysis: Looming water crisis in Gaza” IRIN News, September 15, 2009

“Leaked UN report echoes Goldstone and says Israeli blockade is leading to the ‘de-development’ of Gaza” Mondoweiss, September 18, 2009

6. “Gaza sewage 'a threat to Israel'” BBC, September 3, 2009,

7. “MIDEAST: Gaza's Water Supply Near Collapse” IPS, September 16, 2009

“Who Needs Clean Water?” Pulse, September 24, 2009

8. “Narratives Under Siege (17): Swimming in Sewage” Palestinian Center for Human Rights

9. “Israel’s ‘Crime Against Humanity,’ Chris Hedges, Truthdig, December 15, 2008

10. “Israel tightens the noose on advocacy organizations” Electronic Intifada, September 23, 2009

11. “Destroying Gaza,” Sara Roy, The Electronic Intifada, July 9, 2009

12. “OPT: Gaza schoolchildren lack basic equipment” IRIN News September 9, 2009

13. “ Gaza Prison: Freedom of Movement to and from the Gaza Strip on the Eve of the Disengagement Plan”

“The Gaza Strip-One Big Prison” B’tselem

How Israel brought Gaza to the brink of humanitarian catastrophe” Avi Shlaim, Guardian, January 7, 2009

14. “What aid cutoff to Hamas would mean” Christian Science Monitor, February 26, 2007

15. “Destroying Gaza,” Sara Roy, The Electronic Intifada

16. “Not one penny has reached Gaza” The National, August 31, 2009

17. “How Israel brought Gaza to the brink of humanitarian catastrophe” Avi Shlaim, Guardian

18. “Israel declares Gaza "enemy entity" (19 September 2007)” Electronic Intifada