Gazan children need mental health support

Friday 28/08/2015
Child outside ruined home in Gaza.

London - Gaza, where about 400,000 war-trauma­tised children need ur­gent mental health sup­port, will not be fit for human habitation within the next five years, panelists said at a dis­cussion marking the first anniver­sary of the 51-day Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip.

The conflict, which ended Au­gust 26, 2014, caused 1,500 Pal­estinian civilian deaths and more than 500,000 displaced from their homes, in addition to the destruc­tion of some 100,000 houses.

Addressing the meeting in Lon­don, Wasseem el-Sarraj, from the Palestinian Medical Education Ini­tiative, spoke about the killing of three children from the Bakr family by an Israeli missile on the beach in Gaza. He recalled the words of Hamada, one of the surviving chil­dren, saying: “What the four of us (remaining members of the family) need is help. We need to be taken abroad to forget what happened.”

Another survivor, Mutassim, was the worst affected. “Sometimes he sees his brother’s spirit. No lo­cal psychologist has been able to help him. The child tried to commit suicide by jumping off the balcony of his family home. At school, he nearly killed another child,” Sarraj said.

“These are not easy cases to treat,” Sarraj admitted. “Our organ­isation is trying to increase aware­ness about mental health issues so general practitioners are able to recognise panic disorders, trauma and depression. In schools, we are trying to ensure teachers recognise challenging behaviour as a possible mental problem and not a person­ality disorder.”

Sarraj contended that Gaza’s wounds are unhealed “not because not enough mental health services are available”.

“They are raw because the source of these wounds is not found in the individual” he said. “They are found in the continuation of the strangulation of their freedoms and opportunities and in the violation of their dignity.”

“The struggle for such unalien­able political rights paradoxically promotes resilience. For them resil­ience is the norm and pathology is the exception,” Sarraj said.

William Bell, Christian Aid’s policy and advocacy officer for Is­rael and the Palestinians, began his presentation on the humanitar­ian situation in Gaza by referring to Gaza 2020: a Liveable Place?, a re­port prepared by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refu­gees in the Near East (UNRWA).

“By 2020 if nothing changes, and sad to say it does not look as if any­thing is changing, Gaza will be unfit for human habitation judging from the water, electricity, sanitation and employment situation,” Bell said.

He provided a litany of grim sta­tistics: 60% of youth are unem­ployed with few if any prospects of future employment; 80% of the population of 1.9 million are refu­gees from the Arab-Israeli conflicts of 1948 and 1967 who are living in an area the size of the (British) Isle of Wight; the per capital income is 31% lower than in 1994. For the past seven years, Gaza has been under a complete blockade. Even before the blockade, the Palestinians were suf­fering economically and conditions in the Gaza Strip were among fac­tors that led to the intifada in 1987.

Bell pointed out that more than 70% of Gazan households are sup­plied with piped water for only 6-8 hours once every 2-4 days because of the low levels of power.

Some 500,000 were made home­less during 2014’s fighting. None of the tens of thousands of homes de­stroyed have been rebuilt. Some of the homeless are expected to live for quite some time in containers donated by the international com­munity.

Bell emphasised that in the occu­pied Palestinian territories “one of the underlying causes of poverty is the Israeli occupation”.

Even though the United Nations negotiated the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism between the Palestini­an Authority and the Israeli govern­ment, it is not providing adequate amounts of reconstruction mate­rial. Bell noted that from August 26, 2014, until the end of June 2015, 1.3 million tonnes of reconstruction material entered Gaza, but this only constituted 5.5% of the amount needed.

“It is no good for the interna­tional community to pour more money into Gaza. Without a politi­cal change, without the lifting of the blockade, without the opportunity for the Palestinians to have a life that relies on trade rather than aid, we will continue to see the situation that existed last summer,” Bell con­cluded.

For more than 20 years, Christian Aid, the main development agency of British and Irish churches, has maintained a partnership with the Culture and Free Thought Associa­tion (CFTA), which is specialising in therapeutic activities for children and young people traumatised by wars.

Christian Aid has 23 partnerships with development and human rights organisations in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Describing his two visits to Gaza since 2014 as deeply depressing and a humbling experience, Bell recalls: “I met a man who was walking in the rubble in the devastated Sha­jaya area. He said ‘I am sometimes jealous of those who died because they died quickly’.”