While images of dead young boys wrapped in the flags of martyrdom remain the most haunting symbol of the al-Aqsa intifada, Palestinian women and young children have been seriously scarred as well by this latest round of violence.
“Actually, traumatic events related to the occupation have touched the population here for all the years since 1967,” said Malek Shubair, a spokesman for the Gaza Community Mental Health Center. This cycle of violence has exposed them to experiences such as house raids, being shot at and wounded, imprisonment, or the loss of a family member. Women have faced an additional hardship, as some have experienced domestic violence from husbands psychologically scarred by brutality suffered while in prison.
The current round of violence is the worst Palestinians have ever experienced under Israeli occupation.
The Loss of a Child
Someone draped a flag around Mohammad Abu Rahman Mahfuz’s mother as she waited in silence for the body of her 15-year-old son to be brought home for a final goodbye before proceeding to the gravesite. Deep in the sorrow of mourning, she barely seemed to notice.
Shot by Israeli soldiers during a rock-throwing demonstration in their refugee camp, her son would receive a martyr’s funeral. All she could feel, however, was the eternal emptiness that losing a child brings.
After the death of a loved one, the survivors must spend time grieving before they can begin to get on with their own lives. However, with intifada-related funerals an almost daily occurrence, the normal grieving process is blocked. In these deadly days of violence, the coping mechanisms of peacetime are not enough.
Families face the dual pressures of trying to keep their children safe while supporting the national struggle. “The pressure is greatest on the women,” said Aitemad Muhanna of the Gaza Women’s Empowerment Project. “Of course we all know that ‘theoretically’ we change our situation through ‘national struggle,’ but in reality we are afraid for our children to participate in the clashes.”
Israeli allegations that Palestinian parents push their children toward martyrdom by encouraging them to throw stones at the army particularly have angered Muhanna.
“There are many things pushing these children into martyrdom,” she said, “but the idea that any mother would risk her child’s life is absurd. I push my children to get an education, to raise their awareness of Palestinian history-this is our tool of struggle and the way to gain independence.”
According to Muhanna, many of the young martyrs come from poorer families whose circumstances make it difficult for parents to keep their children safely at home. She cited the example of a refugee family with 8 children, whose father works all day and whose mother is too busy with the smallest children to keep a close eye on the older boys, who go to throw stones after school.
While the children of poorer families are more likely to be involved in the clashes, Muhanna made it clear that the risks cut across socio-economic segments of society. She described a well-educated and relatively well-off friend who was unable to prevent her son from taking part in the clashes after a close friend of his was injured.
“It’s the atmosphere,” Muhanna explained, “particularly the TV news, that pushes people to participate as Palestinians. I would never tell my son to go, but he says he wants to do something.”
Muhanna’s son is 12 years old. When there are clashes near her home she gets very nervous, and changes the TV channel so the kids watch something else. She tells them to concentrate on their homework, but in the end, she said, “I can tell my children not to go throw stones, but the children will make their own decisions.”
For many boys the decision to take part in the rock-throwing is not an easy one. By way of illustration, Rawiaa Hamam, a psychologist/social worker at the Gaza Community Mental Health Project, read from the essay of one 14-year-old boy:
“In the first intifada I was five. I remember when the Israeli soldiers came into our house and lined up my father and brothers. They hit my father and I don’t forget that. Now I want to revenge my father’s dignity. My father locks the door because he doesn’t want me to throw stones, but I climb out the window.”
Since Sept. 28 Hamam and her colleagues have been working hard to help their community cope with the effects of the latest violence. “Some actually say they want to be martyrs,” she said, “while others are afraid.”
One boy, who took his religious brothers as role models, told Hamam, “I love al-Aqsa mosque…I want to be a martyr like my brother.”
Another boy went to throw stones even though he was afraid. When Hamam asked him why he went, he explained that he was picking olives with his family when the other boys asked him to come throw stones. At first he told them no, but when they started calling him a coward he felt obliged to participate.
Whether or not they participate in the clashes, the children are under a great deal of stress. The physically dangerous environment has created an atmosphere of fear. Homes and schools, places that should usually be “safe havens” for children, have been shelled. And children must sometimes pass through conflict zones on a daily basis.
“All our children are affected by the violence, either directly or indirectly,” said Hamam. “They throw stones or they see others hurt. Children have vivid imaginations. They see these brutal images of violence, and even close-ups of the dead boys during the funerals on TV, and it scares them.”
The most horrifying televised moment for many was the shooting of Mohammad al-Durra as his father tried to protect him during a clash in Gaza. The children identify with the boy, and some have become afraid to go out of the house.
One of the most striking examples of the wide-reaching impact of the Durra shooting is the large number of children who recreate the televised scene while playing.
According to Hamam, such playacting may be one symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Children react to trauma differently, and can exhibit a wide range of symptoms. Besides playacting scenes over and over, they might regress to earlier behaviors, become more withdrawn or aggressive, develop headaches, stomach pains, sleep or eating disorders.
“We’ve held public meetings for parents about the psychological problems their children may have,” said Hamam.
Crisis teams also conduct workshops on PTSD for educators, focused on identifying the problem and working with affected children.
The center receives about five calls a day on their special help-line from concerned parents. Often callers ask team members to visit their homes. “It’s difficult for families to bring their children here,” Hamam explained. “In our society there remains a certain stigma about coming to a mental health center.”
Currently the center treats roughly 100 new cases per month. In addition, specialized crisis teams have been visiting hospitals and the families of those killed or wounded to try to avert PTSD with early intervention.
Team members encourage the children to talk about their feelings. One 9-year-old boy Hamam visited in the hospital had followed his older brother to a demonstration without the brother’s permission. The young boy got shot in the leg. When his older brother saw him, he ran to help and was shot just below the heart. The younger boy had great feelings of guilt because, while he was in the orthopedic ward, his brother was in critical condition in intensive care.
Each child’s circumstances differ, and Hamam must work to get the children to speak about their feelings. Sometimes she relies on play therapy, art therapy or other activities to draw the children out.
Hamam realizes that it is not always easy for the them to confront their fears. “One brother of Mohammad al-Durra would not talk to us,” she said. “He kept saying his brother was not dead.”
Mohammad’s 6-year-old sister, Noura, is afraid to play in the street. She thinks that murderous ghosts are following her. Hamam asked Noura what she would like to write in a letter to her brother. The little girl’s letter began, “Mohammad, we miss you. We used to go to school together and you always protected us…”
JoMarie Fecci is a photojournalist based in the New York City metropolitan area.