By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 26, 2009
GAZA CITY, Jan. 25 -- One by one, the seventh-graders rose from their old wooden desks and, in toneless voices that betrayed neither sadness nor surprise, spoke of horrible things.
"A missile targeted my relatives," said Adhem Abdulal, a tall boy with a bright grin. "My cousin got shrapnel in his leg. Another cousin got shrapnel in his head."
"The F-16 bombed my uncle's house. His stomach got ripped out, and he died," said Mohammed Abu Hassan, fidgeting with the zipper on his red leather jacket.
"Our house was burned by the shelling," said Othman Abu Ghaioon, his dark brown hair framing a pale, expressionless face. "The top two floors are destroyed, but the ground floor got fixed. There are 20 of us there now."
When they had finished reciting their experiences during three weeks of war, the teacher dismissed the class and the students tore from the room, giggling and pushing as they began a game of soccer on the school's asphalt courtyard.
In the Gaza Strip, where half the population is under the age of 16, the young bear some of the war's deepest scars. At least 280 children were killed, nearly as many as the number who died in Gaza during the entire second intifada, or uprising, according to the Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights. More than 1,000 others were wounded.
Even the children who escaped physical injury face the psychological consequences of having lived under near-constant bombardment for 22 days and nights. A week into a fragile cease-fire, mental health experts, human rights advocates and parents say they worry that this generation of Palestinian children will suffer the effects of the war for decades to come.
"We in Gaza are 1.5 million people in need of immediate psychotherapy," said Issam Younis, director general of the al-Mezan Center for Human Rights. "But the children especially. They have experienced severe trauma. They should cry. They should shout. But the way they are talking about this tragedy, it's not normal."
Younis said he reassured his own son early in the conflict that children were not being targeted by the Israeli warplanes and that he was safe from the missiles that crashed down around their home. But 6-year-old Mohammed soon started seeing images on television of tiny bodies and small, bloodied faces that he recognized as belonging to children his age.
"You're a liar," Younis said his son told him angrily.
Later in the war, when such televised images had become ubiquitous, Younis said he would try to change the channel, but Mohammed would not let him.
"I'm not afraid, Daddy," he said.
But each night, there was evidence of fear. Mohammed refused to sleep anywhere but his parents' bed, wrapped in his father's arms as the sounds of explosions reverberated through the darkness.
"For 22 nights, I slept in a wet bed," Younis recalled. "He had not done this since he was a baby."
International law dictates that children receive special protection during times of war. Israel has repeatedly said that it did not target women and children during its Gaza operation and did everything it could to avoid civilian casualties. Israeli officials have accused the Islamist movement Hamas, which controls Gaza, of driving up the civilian toll by employing children as scouts to spy on Israeli forces. In addition, Israel has said, Hamas gunmen would often shoot from open areas and then run into schools or private homes to draw Israeli fire on targets likely to house innocent people.
"The destruction in Gaza was proportional to the explosives and resistance presented by Hamas," Brig. Gen. Eyal Eisenberg, Israel's Gaza Division commander, recently told reporters. "In cases where there wasn't resistance, we did our best not to hurt and to cause damage. But in places where there was resistance, we used force."
On Sunday, Israel appointed a team of experts in international law, led by the justice minister, to defend its troops against any war crimes charges arising from the Gaza offensive, which human rights groups have said they intend to file.
Although children represent half the population in Gaza, they were less than a quarter of the 1,300 people killed. Palestinian medical officials say that overall, about half of the dead were civilians. Israel has said it believes it killed more than 500 Palestinian fighters. Thirteen Israelis died in the war, including three civilians.
Despite Israeli denials, there is a widespread perception in Gaza that civilians, not Hamas gunmen, were the real targets of the war. Israel's objective, as articulated by a broad cross section of people interviewed here, was to destroy the broader Palestinian population's will to support Hamas in its campaign of rocket attacks against Israel. Residents say that children were crucial to that effort, with Israel's massive display of firepower intended to instill in them a fear of Israeli strength that will last a lifetime.
But if that was the goal, it does not appear to have worked.
In the seventh-grade classroom, when asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, seven out of 15 students immediately responded with a single word -- "resistance," which is shorthand for the armed Palestinian groups that do not recognize Israel and that use rockets, small arms and suicide attacks to battle the Jewish state.
Hassan Shaban Zeyada, a psychologist with the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, said the war is likely to make Palestinian children more inclined toward violence.
"If your parents can't give you safety, kids will look to others who can," he said. "They're going to want to play the role of the fighter. So the Israeli government is really creating its own enemy."
Zeyada said psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and volunteers had begun an intensive effort across Gaza aimed at intervening early as children grapple with their memories of the war. At school and at home, they are being encouraged to talk, write and draw pictures of their experiences.
Meanwhile, at Gaza City's Shifa Hospital, doctors are trying to heal children's physical injuries, although most of the young patients have been transported either to Israel or to Egypt for more advanced treatment.
One of the few remaining is 5-year-old Mahmoud Rayyan. Forbidden to go outside during the war, the boy was playing with his cousins in his family's home when a missile struck next door; the force of the blast knocked him over a railing, and he fell three stories. More than a week later, he was sleeping in a hospital bed, his breathing shallow.
"Yesterday I learned he will need a liver transplant," his mother, Raedah Rayyan, said through tears. "What will we do?"
Wael Abu Ghanimah, one of 16 pediatricians at Shifa, said many of the children admitted during the war had multiple wounds from shrapnel or internal bleeding from the impact of high-intensity blasts.
"Treating the children, it's not like the others. When I see them, my feelings are those of a father," he said. "It's horrible."
The most difficult, he said, were the ones that the doctors could do nothing to save, including four children from the Abu Halima family in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya. Three boys ages 9 to 14 and a baby girl were huddled with their parents in the hallway of their home when a tank shell tore through the roof, setting off a fire, according to family members. The four children and their father could not escape the flames. The mother was pulled from the wreckage but remains in intensive care.
The family members acknowledged that rockets were launched from the area, but said that their home was never used by fighters and that they had no involvement with Hamas.
"We are poor farmers. Very simple people," said Muftia Khdair, an aunt. "All the children worked. If they didn't work, they didn't eat."
After the tank shell struck, Israeli soldiers occupied the home, according to the family. The soldiers left behind graffiti on the smoke-scarred walls: "We are sorry, from the Israel Defense Forces." The family says the troops also destroyed their furniture, clothes and photos.
The only picture that the family has of the baby, Shahed, is one of her body. The girl's torso is burned black. The bones of her legs protrude from her waist, with no flesh left behind by the fire. A surviving older brother, Ahmed, said he keeps the image stored on his cellphone as a reminder of what was done.
"She was my only sister," he said, his voice catching. "A year and a half old. Was she launching rockets? Was she helping Hamas?"
Correspondent Craig Whitlock in Jerusalem contributed to this report.