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Gaza bombardment further traumatizes children suffering from PTSD

Children’s rights group says mental health of young Palestinians being jeopardized by airstrikes

The traumatization of young people in Gaza looks set to become a lingering wound of the latest Israeli airstrikes, adding to the burden of mental-health experts whose work to heal child PTSD sufferers in the territory has, yet again, been set back by renewed shelling.

The latest wave of bombardments has made it impossible for child psychologists to finish the delicate task of rebuilding the mental health of kids suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from previous waves of conflict, according to a children’s rights group on the ground.

Meanwhile, parents report renewed signs of anxiety and stress among the young. Umm Fadi’s daughters have begun wetting their beds at night. It is a common phenomenon during the past offensives.

“Now trauma is living in us again. Even closing the door of the fridge can scare my daughters,” Umm Fadi, who lives in Tal al-Sultan, told Al Jazeera.

Osama Damo, communications senior manager for Save the Children, said children are likely to face a lot of disorders at sleeping times, “because military operations often take place during the night.”

“The fear that they will be left with is unmanageable for children,” he told Al Jazeera from Gaza.

Moreover, the shelling could go some way to undoing the painstaking work done by health workers and psychologists to help children recover psychologically from past Israeli offenses in Gaza in 2008-2009 and 2012. Hundreds of children were killed as a result of those military operations.

After the 2012 war, the PTSD rate among children in Gaza doubled, according to the United Nation’s agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA).

“The main thing we’re facing in Gaza is that many organizations haven’t finished their work yet with children affected in the last attacks, and here we go with a new offensive,” Damo said.

Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas on the planet, with a population of about 1.7 million people in an area that is 139 square miles. Israel accuses Hamas of operating out of civilian areas, and will often attack civilian infrastructure because of that.

The impact of bombings on civilians has again been an issue with Operation Protective Edge — the Israeli military offensive launched after the deaths of three kidnapped Israeli teens late last month. Its air force and navy have launched over 500 strikes on Gaza, killing at least 72 Palestinians, including several children, and injuring hundreds. Israel's leadership has said the operation will not be short, and has even hinted at a ground invasion into Gaza as Hamas continues to retaliate by firing rockets into Israel.

Psychological problems resulting from conflict usually manifest in children after the military operation has concluded, with symptoms of PTSD, sleeping disorders, and behavioral issues, according to Damo.

He added that there are organizations working in Gaza to provide safe places for children during raids.

But the type of offensive being launched often leaves no possibility of providing an entirely safe haven. Both children and adults can feel helpless as a result.

Umm Fadi, who has three daughters and one son, said she has tried to comfort her children, but her nine-year-old, Raghd, still cries all night as Israeli air strikes shake the ground in Gaza.

“It’s hard to explain politics to children — they hear from other neighborhood children that it’s Israel bombing Gaza again, but still I can’t give them an answer as to why,” she said, adding: “I am afraid myself, and my children come to hide in my bedroom. How can I possible show them I am not afraid.”

Save the Children is calling on all parties to agree to a ceasefire so that vital services can be provided to the children of Gaza.

Damo said counseling sessions will be offered for children after the Israeli assault finishes. Meanwhile, various organizations will work with families to teach them how to help children cope with traumatic situations.

But for many, traumatic situations have become a hazard of living in Gaza.

“Trauma is a term which they have used in the West when they were talking about normal situations and there is a breakdown. This breakdown is the trauma, but for us Palestinians, trauma is the daily life,” said Palestinian doctor Ahmed Abu Tawahinah.

He added: “The term trauma itself is not enough to describe what is going on in Gaza. I am not convinced we expressed the horror.”

With additional reporting by Jillian Kestler-D'Amours

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