[News] Vast majority of Gaza children suffer PTSD symptoms

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Mon Nov 9 14:38:16 EST 2009

Vast majority of Gaza children suffer PTSD symptoms

Aditya Ganapathiraju, The Electronic Intifada, 9 November 2009

More than 40 years of Israeli military occupation have had a 
devastating impact on Palestinians in Gaza. Air strikes, artillery 
shelling, ground invasions, jet flybys and other acts of violence 
have all led to an epidemic of suffering among Gaza's most vulnerable 
inhabitants. The most recent studies indicate that the vast majority 
of Gaza's children exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Soon after the Israeli winter assault, a group of scholars at the 
University of Washington discussed different aspects of the situation 
in Gaza and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). Dr. Evan 
Kanter, a UW School of Medicine professor and the current president 
of Physicians for Social Responsibility, delivered a somber talk 
describing the mental health situation among Gaza's population. The 
numbers he cited described a staggering level of psychological trauma.

Dr. Kanter described studies that revealed 62 percent of Gaza's 
inhabitants reported having a family member injured or killed, 67 
percent saw injured or dead strangers and 83 percent had witnessed shootings.

According to Dr. Kanter, in a study of high school-aged children from 
southern refugee camps in Rafah and Khan Younis, 69 percent of the 
children showed symptoms of PTSD, 40 percent showed signs of moderate 
or severe depression, and a staggering 95 percent exhibited severe 
anxiety. Meanwhile, 75 percent showed limited or no ability to cope 
with their trauma. All of this was before the last Israeli invasion.

Dr. Eyad El-Sarraj, head of the Gaza Community Mental Health 
Programme, and whom Dr. Kanter described as a "medical hero" working 
under seemingly impossible conditions, has produced "some of the best 
research in the world on the impact of war on civilian populations." 
In a 2002 interview he said that 54 percent of children in Gaza had 
symptoms of PTSD, along with 30 percent of adults. The hardest hit 
were young ones who had their homes bulldozed or who lost loved ones 
like their mothers, he said. Again, these figures were obtained well 
before conditions dramatically deteriorated.

Gaza's population is overwhelmingly young. About 45 percent of the 
population are 14 years old or younger and roughly 60 percent are 19 
years and younger. The long-term effects of constant violence and 
PTSD on such a young population are incalculable.

A recent study by international researchers and the Gaza Community 
Mental Health Programme entitled "War on Gaza survey study" reveals 
more worrying figures. Of a representative sample of children in 
Gaza, more than 95 percent experienced artillery shelling in their 
area or sonic booms of low-flying jets. Moreover, 94 percent recalled 
seeing mutilated corpses on TV and 93 percent witnessed the effects 
of aerial bombardments on the ground. More than 70 percent of 
children in Gaza said they lacked water, food and electricity during 
the most recent attacks, and a similar percentage said they had to 
flee to safety during the recent attacks.

In addition, 98.7 percent of the traumatized children reported that 
they did not feel safe in their homes. More than 95 percent of the 
children felt that they were unable to protect themselves or their 
family members, causing a feeling of utter powerlessness that is 
compounded by a sense of loss over unfulfilled lives.

A whole generation is being lost to the horrors of large-scale 
military violence and a brutal occupation. In front of many 
distraught members in the audience, Dr. Kanter described a study that 
showed that witnessing severe military violence results in more 
aggression and antisocial behavior among children, along with the 
"enjoyment of aggression." There are similar studies among Israeli 
children who witness violent attacks.

PTSD, Dr. Kanter explained, is an "engine that perpetuates violent 
conflict." It leads to three characteristic symptoms. First, 
individuals re-experience the traumatic events in the form of the 
nightmares, debilitating flashbacks and terrifying memories that 
haunt individuals for years afterwards. Second, other individuals may 
develop avoidance symptoms in which they become isolated and 
emotionally numb, deadened to the world around them. Third, 
individuals have symptoms of hyper arousal, which may lead to 
excessive anger, insomnia, self-destructive behavior and a 
hyper-vigilant state of mind. Other maladies like poor social 
functioning, depression, suicidal thoughts, a lack of trust and 
family violence are all associated with PTSD.

The most recent study, "Trauma, grief and PTSD in Palestinian 
children victims for war on Gaza" by the Gaza Community Mental Health 
Programme, revealed that in the aftermath of the winter assault on 
Gaza, an unbelievable 91.4 percent of children in Gaza displayed 
symptoms of moderate to very severe PTSD. Meanwhile, only about one 
percent of the children showed no signs of PTSD.

The outlook for children in Gaza suffering from these symptoms is not 
optimistic. Whereas soldiers who experience traumatic events in a war 
zone can return home to relative calm and seek treatment, the people 
of Gaza continue to be held in what one Israeli human rights group 
labeled the "largest prison on Earth"-- a methodically "de-developed" 
island isolated from the rest of the world.

One of the most distressing prospects for peace are studies of 
similar war-torn populations like Kosovo and Afghanistan that showed 
that military violence often leads to widespread feelings of hatred 
and the simmering urge for revenge. One can easily predict the future 
consequences of a large number of young people exposed to this level 
of trauma.

In an op-ed published during Israel's winter invasion Dr. Eyad 
El-Sarraj warned that "Palestinian children in the first intifada 20 
years ago threw stones at Israeli tanks trying to wrest freedom from 
Israeli military occupation. Some of those children grew up to become 
suicide bombers in the second intifada 10 years later. It does not 
take much to imagine the serious changes that will befall today's children."

"The breakdown of an entire society is happening in front of us," 
political economist Sara Roy warned in July. Many share Roy's feeling 
that "what looms is no less than the loss of entire generation of 
Palestinians," which she fears may have occurred already.

This will be the enduring legacy of the Israeli occupation.

Aditya Ganapathiraju is a student, independent writer and local 
organizer. He lives in the Seattle area and works on Palestine and 
other social justice issues.

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