Gazan children need mental health support
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’.”