Omsyatte adjusts her green school uniform and climbs gingerly on to a desk at the front of the classroom. The shy 12-year-old holds up a brightly coloured picture and begins to explain to her classmates what she has drawn. It is a scene played out in schools all over the world, but for one striking difference: Omsyatte’s picture does not illustrate a recent family holiday, or jolly school outing, but the day an Israeli military offensive killed her nine-year-old brother and destroyed her home.
“Here is where they shot my brother Ibrahim, God bless his soul. And here is the F16 plane that threw rockets into the house and trees, and here is the tank that started to shoot,” she says, to a round of applause from the other children. The exercise is designed to help the pupils at the school come to terms with the warfare that has dominated their short lives; particularly the horrors of the 2008 Israeli military offensive Operation Cast Lead, which killed 1,400 Palestinians, and destroyed one in eight homes.
Like hundreds of displaced Gazans, Omsyatte’s family have spent more than a year living in a tent on a site near their home. Little rebuilding work has been done during this time – with supplies unable to pass into Gaza because of the ongoing blockade imposed by Israel in 2007 – and groups of children now pick their way through piles of rubble, kicking footballs around the bombsites which used to be local landmarks.
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Homelessness is just one of the issues facing the 780,000 Gazan children in the aftermath of the conflict, problems that are explored in a revealing new documentary Dispatches: Children of Gaza, to be screened tomorrow at 8pm on Channel 4. Perhaps the most disturbing of these is the emotional scars borne by children who have survived the conflict; the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme reports that the majority of children show signs of anxiety, depression and behavioural problems.
Small boys build toy rockets out of drinks bottles, and talk about the fake guns they are going to buy with their pocket money. While boys the world over are preoccupied with fighting and weapons, this takes on a more sinister significance when the game isn’t Cowboys vs Indians, but Jews vs Arabs, and the children’s make-believe warfare is chillingly realistic.
These games may reflect the children’s desire for revenge against their neighbours, of which many speak openly. “I think we are seeing a growing desire for violence, and it saddens me,” said Jezza Neumann, the Bafta-winning director of the programme. “If they could get revenge legally, or saw someone saying sorry, then perhaps they could come to terms with it, but there has been no recourse. What you’re seeing now may only be the tip of the iceberg.”
Mahmoud, 12, describes the day Israeli soldiers knocked on the door and shot his father dead, lying down in the dirt where his father fell in a heartbreaking reconstruction, and describes the enormous changes it wrought upon him. “Before the war, I was thinking about education, but after I started thinking about becoming a fighter,” he says, his thickly lashed brown eyes staring straight into the camera. “God willing, if I can kill one Israeli it will be better than nothing.”
Desperate to avenge his father’s death, Mahmoud is encouraged by his uncle Ahmed, a member of the terrorist group Islamic Jihad. Sitting Mahmoud down in front of a martyrdom film, Ahmed says, “Look how he doesn’t feel a thing when he is detonated” as a suicide bomber dies. Just a few hundred yards from the family’s home is a training camp for Gaza’s fighters – both Hamas and Islamic Jihad – where young men carrying rocket launchers are clearly visible.
While Mahmoud is desperate for revenge, his mother weeps when she considers the possibility that he may become a martyr. “It is an honour to die in the name of Allah, but I don’t want to lose my son,” she said.
Some believe that with Israel’s tight restrictions on movement blocking conventional career options for the 1.1 million people who live there, children may feel they have no choice but to join resistance movements. Last week Palestinians in the Gaza Strip lit 1,000 candles and held a peaceful protest to mark 1,000 days of the Israeli blockade. During this time, unemployment has risen to 45 per cent, with 76 per cent of households now living in poverty.
“The children are struggling with the idea of the future,” Mr Neumann said. “Many graduates in Gaza are unemployed, and they can’t see a way forward because they can’t get out.”
Families have been fractured by the conflict, with many parents racked by guilt because they couldn’t protect their children from the violence, and now cannot provide for them in the aftermath. Sitting in the tent which is now their home, Omsyatte’s father weeps as he talks of his regret over the death of his son Ibrahim.
“The Israelis killed my son while he was in my arms, and I could do nothing to protect him,” he says, tears streaming down his face. “I couldn’t even look at him when he was taking his last breaths of life, because the soldiers were right above my head. I was too much of a coward to even hug my son. I was afraid that they would kill me. These things torment me.”
Dr Ahmed Abu Tawanheena, the director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, says this issue is also affecting children in Gaza. “They have lost their parents twice: first, during the conflict, when they saw their parents terrified and unable to protect them from the violence. Now, under the blockade, they see their parents are still unable to provide for their basic needs, such
as shelter or food,” he said. “It’s a crisis which is threatening families and communities across the Gaza Strip.”
For some, this crisis has had a devastating impact on family relationships, with mental health professionals and NGOs linking a rise in domestic violence with these feelings of guilt and impotence. A study by the Palestinian Women’s Information and Media Centre (PWIC) in March 2009 found that 77 per cent of women in the Gaza Strip are exposed to domestic violence, while a survey by the UN Development Fund for Women (Unifem) also indicated that violence against women increased during periods of heavy conflict.
Many children are suffering the physical effects of the conflict. One of these is Mahmoud’s nine-year-old sister Amal. Trapped under the rubble of her home – which was destroyed by Israeli shells – for four days before she was rescued, Amal was left with shrapnel lodged in her brain. Plagued by headaches and nosebleeds, and unable to get the medical care she needs in Gaza, Amal is lucky enough to be granted papers which allow her to travel to nearby Tel Aviv to be examined by a specialist. However, her experiences have left her so scared of Israelis that she doesn’t want to go.
Crouching over a colouring book, her curly brown hair held back with pretty hair bands, she explained: “I’m scared to go to Israel. From the Jews. I’m frightened they might kill me.”
Many of the children in Gaza’s Shefa hospital do not have the option of leaving the strip, and the prognosis for children in the oncology ward is bleak. Chemotherapy is not available in Gaza, and many of the children on the ward have not been granted the papers they need to seek the treatment readily available to Palestinians just across the Israeli and Egyptian borders. One of these children is 10-year-old Ribhye, crippled by advanced leukaemia and unable to leave Gaza. His distraught father, sitting in a hospital room devoid of the equipment and medicine his son so desperately needs, is devastated not to have been granted leave to take Ribhye out of Gaza. “How do I get out? This border is closed, that border is closed. What do I do?” he asked.
“The mortality rate for cancer in Gaza is much higher than elsewhere,” said Steve Sosebee, president of the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund. “You have to get a permit if you want to cross into Gaza and most of them are not granted. A lot of kids are dying as a result of the decisions being made by the people in charge, whether Hamas, the Egyptian government, the Israeli government.”
Even the parents who have papers allowing their children to leave don’t fare much better. Eight-year-old leukaemia sufferer Wissam was granted permission to cross into Egypt for treatment, but has been waiting for weeks for the border crossing to be opened. After being told that he would finally be allowed through after sitting at the border for hours, the coach full of hospital patients was turned away, and had to make the long drive back to the Nasser hospital. Wissam’s father desperately tried to find out from hospital officials why the coach was turned back. “Every day the child stays here is a danger to his life,” he said, his words echoing the thoughts of so many Palestinian parents.