The seven-year-old Palestinian girl was so traumatised after seeing a bomb demolish her grandfather’s home last November, that she retreated into silence. It was destroyed last November during a sustained Israeli military attack, called Pillar of Defense.
According to Palestinian doctor and project Director for the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA), Dr Mona Qasim ElFarra, the girl saw the bombing. For three weeks after witnessing the explosion, the Palestinian child rebuffed all efforts to persuade her to talk, she said.
In another child trauma case, a six–year–old boy who lost his mother in the aerial attacks responded by becoming extremely restless and aggressively touching people. “He was deeply disturbed and in need of attention,” ElFarra said. Medical workers have found children as old as 16 developing symptoms of bombing related trauma, like bedwetting.
ElFarra is Vice-President of The Red Crescent Society for Gaza Strip, an organisation that provides emergency medical care. She was speaking during a visit to Australia where she has addressed public meetings and met with church group and politicians. She was able to give a first-hand account of the impact the on-going conflict with Israel and siege of Gaza has on the population — and of Gaza’s rule by the militant Hamas group.
ElFarra was brought to Australia by the Sydney based Coalition for Justice and Peace in Palestine, with the support of the Medical Association for Prevention of War.
Last November's attack was launched after militants in Gaza fired a rocket on an Israel military patrol that injured four soldiers. During the eight-day campaign, Israeli warplanes pounded Gaza with bombs and rocket attacks. Around 1500 sites were hit, including apartments. According to human rights NGO B’Tselem, 167 Palestinians were killed. Palestinian attacks killed four Israeli civilians and two soldiers.
ElFarra’s work deals with the aftermath — the neglected story of the emotional and psychological impact of living with death and destruction, especially on children and women. “It affects the psychological well-being of the population,’’ she said. “Many children suffer years of trauma living with the destruction of thousands of homes. It can show up as an inability to focus at school.’’
Other symptoms seen by health workers include “darkness phobias, anxiety, clinging to their mother, children afraid to go to the toilet at night, and stammering.” Their troubled state can also manifest itself in sleeping disorders or screaming fits. Many stop eating or drinking. According to Gaza’s Health Workers Collective Organization, 45 per cent of children under five in Gaza suffer some form of trauma or post traumatic stress disorder symptoms.
ElFarra has given up her own practice as a dermatologist to concentrate on a project initiated by MECA to reach the war-afflicted children through the healing power of play. ‘’We try and alleviate the trauma with dancing, drawing, clowning, singing.’’ The more severely traumatised children are referred to psychologists for counseling.
“Through play, we get them to tell their stories and act out the trauma. We ask them to sleep and dream and talk about their dream,” ElFarra said.
The program has been very effective. The seven-year-old girl who had stopped speaking found her voice again after three weeks. There is also a program to train women to work with the children and to know how to recognise symptoms of trauma and how to deal with them.
Unfortunately, ElFarra said, “We have the human resources but not adequate funds for the project”. The funds they do receive come from MECA’s partner organisation in America. It is an important investment in the future of a territory where half the population of 1.7 million are children.
The psychological impact of living in an enclave subjected at times to military bombardment is underscored by her own experience during last November’s Israeli operation. She was in her apartment when bombs, dropped by F16 planes, fell just 200 metres away.
"The whole building began to shake, windows were broken and children were crying. For me, I didn’t sleep for eight nights,” ElFarra said. Despite the danger, she continued to go to work each day at the nearby MECA Centre. “It was my duty.”
Seven months after Operation Pillar of Defense, a significant number of people in Gaza are still living in tents or in wrecked homes that are unsafe. This compounded existing damage from the 2008 Operation Cast Lead campaign. Sanitation is a serious problem; most of the sewerage system was destroyed in aerial attacks. Ninety-five percent of water in Gaza is unfit to drink. Twelve per cent of children die from diarrhea, according to a 2009 UN report. A regular electricity supply is essential for pumping water to homes, but is only available intermittently. Medical workers are hampered by a 50 per cent shortage in medical supplies.
Due to the Gaza blockade, There is now “a collapsed or deteriorating humanitarian situation”, with 60 per cent of the population suffering food shortages. Over half the children under three have anaemia, and just over a third of pregnant women. “Gaza in 2020 will not be a liveable place,” ElFarra says.
She keeps rolling out statistics. "Over the past 16 months, 51 Palestinian women have given birth in ambulances and cars and 29 newborn babies have died at Israeli checkpoints,’’ ElFarra said. (Israeli soldiers manning border checkpoints can stop vehicles for hours or even days.) “Patients [needing outside treatment]can find it very difficult to exit Gaza,” she adds.
Over the past 16 months, there has been a shortage of facilities in Gaza for treating cancer patients needing chemotherapy. Patients need to apply to the Israeli government for a special permit to leave Gaza for treatment in Israel, Egypt or France. It is very difficult to get a permit; 90 per cent of applications are refused, according to ElFarra. “Patients have died waiting for permits. Many times children are issued permits but the parents are refused.”
The residents of Gaza, particularly young women, are coming under pressure to wear the veil and cease wearing western clothing. Hamas also wants to segregate school children from the age of 10 into separate male and female classes. Under Hamas, domestic violence against women has increased, Dr ElFarra said.
She found it “appalling” that Hamas forced the cancellation of a United Nations marathon due to be held in Gaza last March by banning female entrants. “Sport is one of the things that encourages peace. It is very important to encourage sports projects, especially for women.” She is trying to promote running in Gaza and hopes to see funds available for running tracks.
With Gaza's park and few playgrounds wrecked by bombing or ruined by neglect, she is also spearheading a campaign to raise funds for playgrounds. Gaza’s 220 schools are so packed that children attend school in three-to-four hour shifts. Playgrounds will give them a chance to still have a childhood and an escape from the grim life that otherwise awaits them.