Politics

Gaza conflict creates another broken generation

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GAZA CITY, Gaza — Northeast Gaza is unlike any other part of this small, coastal Palestinian enclave. Rugged green pastures, dotted with functional concrete farmhouses, surround the border town of Beit Hanoun, offering rare respite from Gaza's urban jungle.

Mohammad Shimbeli owns one of these farms and was sitting in his house with his six children when he first heard the roar of Israeli tanks.

"The Israeli troops yelled at us to get out of our houses," he said, "So we fled."

With tanks sitting on the top of a hill several hundred yards away, Shimbeli rounded up his six children, ranging in age from 1 to 10, and fled to the center of town.

His children had already endured more than a week of an intense air campaign from the Israelis, and he was eager to get them out of harm's way.

"Some of my kids were very afraid," he said.

But there was something that worried him much more.

"Some of my kids began to think of this as routine," he said, noting that most of them had witnessed Israeli incursions in the past.

"I think they may have many mental health problems," Shimbeli added. "We've all lived through many wars."

With Israel's claim that it had achieved the aims of its three-week Gaza offensive, it may have also unwittingly created a new generation of broken youth.

In 1998, President Bill Clinton arrived in Gaza to declare a new beginning for Palestinians. Ports and borders were opened and commerce began anew. At that moment, Palestinians met the U.S. president with American flags and a shared belief that, together with the international community, they could rebuild this war-torn patch of land.

But in the chaotic era since, known popularly in Gaza as the second intifada, Israeli-Palestinian conflicts have ranged from shootings, bombings and rocket attacks to the full-blown military offensive of this month.

In January 2006, Hamas, the Sunni Muslim Palestinian group, won parliamentary elections, putting the territory on a collision course with Israel. Throughout the first half of 2007, sporadic violence erupted between Hamas and rival Fatah, ending in a complete government takeover by the militant group.

As a result of this violent legacy, Shimbeli's son has been brought up in a world of perpetual violence, a world where progress has come to a slow stop.

The psychological effects of war on the Palestinians are profound, said Yasser Mansour, a clinical psychologist at the Islamic University in Gaza who has worked with children for more than 10 years.

"We have observed that the psychological affects manifest themselves both physically and mentally," he said.

He noted muscular weakness, hyperactivity, fatigue, shaking, bed-wetting and an elevated heart rate as common symptoms of psychological disturbance.

The United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) reports that almost a third of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank suffer from anxiety and depression.

Mansour said the affects of a conflict might only surface long after it ends. "During the war, most of these effects don't appear. They surface after the war," he said.

Diaa El Kord, a psychology graduate student in Gaza, concurred. "War affects children in many ways," she said. "They don't, for example, learn well when they're scared. This will affect our society for a long time."

Experts agree that the symptoms are treatable but that the long history of war in Gaza can hinder doctors' efforts.

"Over time," Mansour said, "These effects fade, but never completely. They will be stored mentally, without any symptoms, but from time to time the symptoms continue to surface."

And the psychological affects of war may have consequences beyond Gaza's borders.

"When I was a child," said another psychology graduate student, Mazin Hussein, "I hated the Israeli and American people. When I grew up, I learned to feel differently. But this hating is still in my mind and in my heart."

In trying to treat patients suffering from psychological trauma, Gaza suffers from a lack of trained personnel, challenges in importing medicine, and a lack of money to build sufficient treatment centers.

Most of the psychological treatment is offered through government centers, though UNRWA and other NGOs run small centers in the strip.

"It's a very weak program in Gaza," said Mansour. "Clinics use medicine as a first step since they don't have enough specialists."

"Medicine is very important," he added, "but it's not enough."

There are signs that the latest conflict has already started to tighten its grip on Gaza's young youngest. Allah Barout is a 13-year-old fruit vendor in the southern town of Rafah. Like the Shimbeli family at the other end of the strip, he felt the war close up.

"I live in this house," he said, pointing to a building whose storefronts had been destroyed.

"I used to pray in this mosque," he added, pointing across the street to the shell of a decimated mosque, adorned with a green Hamas flag.

"I am with the flag," he said, proudly.

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Tagged: Israel and PalestineMiddle East.