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The Psychological Trauma of Catastrophe

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Despite the on-again, off-again ceasefires between the Palestinian Resistance and Israel, attacks in Gaza have continued. According to 8/10/14 announcement from Tel Aviv, they will continue, doubtlessly as ruthless as ever. After Israel launched the first attack on July 7th, tension continues as an omnipresent essence whirling about the winds of the greatly sought-after Holy land. Bombarded by airstrikes, shelling and bombs, civilians of the Gaza strip are incarcerated in what seems to be a never-ending battle with no escape. Recent reports from numerous sources and journalists describe the weight of the devastation Palestinians have endured in Gaza.

Within the last ten years, Israel has provoked three offensive movements against the Palestinian territory in Gaza: Operation Cast Lead, which began at the end of 2008 and 2009, Operation Pillar of Defense, which last eight days in November 2012, and most recently, Operation Protective Edge, which started on July 7th, 2014. During this period of devastation, homes have been obliterated, nearly two thousand civilians have been killed, and humanitarian resources are extremely limited due to the Israeli blockade. Catastrophic damage has already been done, some irreparable; and some of the most important consequences are often overlooked.

According to Dr. Jesse Ghannam, a clinical psychologist working for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the rate of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder among children has doubled since the 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense attack. These children will most likely suffer from mood disorders, anxiety, depression, problems with attachment and develop antisocial personality traits. Children of Gaza who are nine years old have spent whole lives experiencing the terror of ruthless violence.

The UN relief and works agency reported that approximately 270,000 Gazans are taking UN schools as shelters. The organization also calculates that more than 350,000 children need mental health services because of severe and persisting psychological trauma. How can children cope when they witness the loss of their homes and their entire families from a single explosion? These children are witnessing their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, friends and neighbors being blown apart with no understanding of why.

Many Gazan children who have survived view life as an inescapable war. There are many psychological principles to consider when assessing the future of these children, psychosocial development being a prominent one. The UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization recently stated that about 75% of teachers at primary and secondary levels reported a decline in their students’ academic performance since Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012. Furthermore, Operation Protective Edge has damaged 138 schools, including 89 run by the UNRWA.

IRIN, a UN Humanitarian news and information service, reported that the lack of locations to attend school and lack of education resources leaves students having to wait, prolonging their education with no guarantee of returning. Erica Silverman reported from the 2008-2009 attack that due to the trauma of these children and lack of psychological counseling resources, many are hesitant and anxious about even going to school. Six years later, with two more perennial offenses, these children of Gaza are overwrought. Iyad Zaqut, a psychiatrist managing the UN community mental health programs in the Gaza strip, reports fewer than 100 specialist teachers are treating more than 100,000 children.

The lack of schools, teachers, and school supplies make education for these children a fallacy. In addition to the scarcity of academic availability, many of these schools do not offer mental health services because of the abundance of children suffering from psychological trauma and limited mental health providers. As a result, these children are in dire need of aid which is unattainable. It’s important to consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs when thinking about these children. These kids do not even have their basic safety and physiological needs met, which are basic human rights which many take for granted. They have nothing but memories of explosions and imprinted images of violence in their minds.

They live in a world they cannot change, that is cruel and violent. Their only solace is uttering the words “Inch’Allah” as they hide with their families and try to avoid the destruction surrounding them. Many of them don’t. Thousands of Palestinians are restricted from leaving Gaza Strip and are confined, condemned by the Israeli agenda with their fate already determined. How can children conceptualize this, what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamen Netanyahu has described as “complicated” yet “justified”?

Children are unable to understand the nature of this ongoing destruction. The children who have witnessed all three of the Israeli offenses are old enough to have reached Concrete Operations of Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development. Even so, how can they begin to conceptualize such oppression being justifiable? They don’t. Instead, these children, who are completely traumatized, are taught that survival is retaliating against these forces. The innate human compassion that every single human is born with is drowned with the blood of their people, leaving these children as empty shells, with their only hope to survival becoming filled with hatred and violence to join an extremist organization, where they will become like their oppressors—ruthlessly inhuman and unaffected by bloodshed.

In addition to the trauma they experience from witnessing these horrors themselves, family tensions contribute to their psychological issues. It’s difficult for children to feel safe when their parents, older relatives and other adults are stressed. Children need reassurance from adults and a healthy and supportive environment. Their parents are also suffering and face their own worries, so these children of Gaza cannot even retrieve comfort from their family.

The children of Gaza, who may initially be socially withdrawn and reclusive, quiet yet scarred and suffering, are at grave risk of growing into killing machines with nothing but bitter resentment for Israel. The attacks on children in Gaza are only fueling the ongoing violence, because for these children the only option is to avenge their dead family members, their homes, their schools, and their lack of human resources. Essentially, these kids have never known a proper society and will undoubtedly return to a very barbaric nature because that is their only means of survival.

These children are unable to have normal lives and development—besides the psychological trauma and lack of resources—because their identity is not fostered in a normal, healthy way. One of the most notable theories of development comes from Erik Erikson, who developed the 8 stages of psychosocial development. The nine-year old survivors of the Israeli offenses in Gaza, for instance, would be in Erikson’s stage of Industry vs. Inferiority. This is a crucial stage of human development, but these children will not be able to surpass this stage and continue to develop in a healthy manner. The Industry, which we can compare to the Israeli militant forces, dominate over the Palestinians. The children of Gaza who have lost everything—while never really having anything—are robbed of their dignity and the right to a stable life and identity of self.

The Palestinian suffering and Israeli-Palestinian conflict is nothing new. This problem has been raging on, but it is important to ease the suffering of these children and provide resources to help them and help the world. There is a way to stop the cycle, with humanitarian efforts and discussion about what needs to be done. These children are innocent, and yet they are subjected to so much. It is a moral responsibility of the international community to provide assistance to alleviate the strife of these children and rebuild what is left of the home of the Palestinian people.

Louisa Lamb has her B.A. in Psychology and is an independent researcher and journalist reporting on the underclass and marginalized. She can be reached c/o louisaalamb@gmail.com

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