Hassan al-Zeyada, 50, works as a psychologist at the Gaza Community Mental Health Program’s center in Gaza City. He treats several residents who suffer from psychological trauma due to Israeli military operations in the coastal enclave. When his own home was shelled on 20 July, killing six of his family members, he found himself with difficult job of having to treat himself.
Tackling the psychological problems in Gaza stemming from the aftermath of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, during which nearly 2,000 people in Gaza were killed, will be a huge challenge. UN statistics presented today show that approximately 335,000 people are displaced and live in shelters, schools or with family. These numbers only include persons that registered through local or international NGOs. The real number of displaced people is therefore likely to be higher and is also “expected to rise again if hostilities resume”.
With the Israeli military attacking UN shelters, schools and mosques alike, safety is nowhere to be found in the Gaza Strip – a worry Al-Zayara feels quite acutely. “They may hit at any time. There is no safe place. Psychologically, that is the problem,” he told the New York Times.
Even with the 72-hour truce entering its third day, many residents of the Gaza Strip do not feel secure enough to permanently move back to their hometowns. Keeping in mind the failure of extending the previous 72-hour truce, former Beit Lahiya resident Hikmat Atta said he is not taking any chances. “We’re just going back for the day, at night we’ll come back (to the UN shelter),” he told Al-Jazeera yesterday.
Children are the main victims
With half of the Gazan population under the age of 14, children have been the main victims of the latest Israeli military operation. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that 373,000 children in Gaza are in need of direct and specialized psychological support.
High levels of stress felt by worried Gazan parents have a negative influence on their children, argues Dr. Jennifer Leaning, director of FXB Center for Health at Harvard University. “I would say that in all studies of disaster and in war crisis, the fundamental feature that protects children from serious psychological stress is their certainty (…) that their parents or grandparents will be able to protect and hold them.”
She adds however that: “The parents and grandparents (…) are in no psychological position to be able to convey that umbrella of hope and safety for their children.”
The aftermath of Operation Cast Lead
In 2010, a report presented by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) showed that both teachers and students in Gazan schools faced psychological problems in the aftermath of 2008/9 Operation Cast Lead.
77 per cent of the teachers saw a decline in their students’ performance levels. Teachers themselves were struggling to maintain order and 57 per cent of all teachers did not feel safe in their own school.
“If you don’t feel safe, you can’t help students feel safe,” one teacher remarked in the UNESCO-report.
One of the main problems after 'Operation Cast Lead’ was the increasing dropout rate of students. A UNESCO survey among 6,000 students showed that many of them had to work to provide for their families after the death of family members who used to provide for them, or to fill in for family members that became unemployed due to the military operation. Some students managed to work during the night while attending school during the day, but they underachieve because they lack the time to properly study and rest.
“I began working (…) one year ago during the war because there was no other source of income for my family. I work 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., sleep, then go back to school at 11 a.m. There is no time to study,” a preparatory student remarks in the UNESCO report.
The Israeli NGO B’Tselem puts the Palestinian death toll after Israel’s three-week 2008 'Operation Cast Lead’ campaign at 1,385. 'Operation Protective Edge’, which has lasted for 36 days thus far, has a running death toll of 1,962. The main difference between the two operations is the amount of civilian casualties. During 'Cast Lead,’ half of the casualties were civilians, whereas UN statistics show that 71 per cent during 'Protective Edge’ have been civilians.
The high number of civilian casualties in the 2014-operation is expected to correlate with an increasing number of children affected by psychological problems. Bassema Ghamen, a counselor worker for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) stated that counselors have already noticed “serious behavioral changes in children, such as aggression, anger, nervousness and restlessness. Children cannot sleep or fall asleep only to wake up screaming in the middle of the night, clinging to their parents.”
The psychological damage faced by Gazan children will also affect future peace negotiations, argues Dr. Jesse Ghannam, a clinical psychiatrist working for UNRWA.
“When we are talking about creating a solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (…) they aren’t growing up interested in peace and wanting to make things better. They just grow up deeply traumatized and very distraught and angry.”