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Israeli war against Hamas scars Gaza's children

Psychologists say Israel's three-week offensive inflicted more severe trauma than previous conflicts in Gaza because civilians in the crowded sliver of territory had no safe place to run.
Saja Abed Rabbo, 5, stands amid the rubble of her devastated neighborhood Sunday in Jebaliya, northern Gaza Strip, to talk to Gaza trauma counselor Mustafa Haj-Ahmed. Anja Niedringhaus / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Surrounded by mountains of rubble that were once their homes, two dozen children sat on a rainbow-colored blanket and drew with crayons.

They quickly filled the pages passed around by trauma counselors with pictures of Israeli tanks, dead bodies and Palestinians firing assault rifles — scenes they saw when Israel's war on Hamas came into their neighborhood.

"We felt we will die soon," 11-year-old Sharif Abed Rabbo told the group, describing his family's escape. "And I am sad I lost my house."

Psychologists say Israel's three-week offensive inflicted more severe trauma than previous conflicts in Gaza because civilians in the crowded sliver of territory had no safe place to run. A wartime study among hundreds of Gaza children showed a rise in nightmares, bedwetting and other signs of trauma, said psychologist Fadel Abu Hein.

'Losing the next generation'
Counselors and aid workers fear that Gaza's children, who make up 56 percent of the 1.4 million people here, will grow up hating Israel and become easier prey for extremists.

"We are losing the next generation," said John Ging, the top U.N. aid official in Gaza. As a buffer against militancy, U.N. schools are launching human rights classes for their 200,000 students this week.

Children and teens were particularly vulnerable in Israel's military offensive, launched Dec. 27 to try to halt eight years of Hamas rocket fire on towns in southern Israel. The rocket attacks have frightened children there and frequently sent them running for cover.

In Gaza, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights counted 280 children among 1,285 dead and said one in four of the more than 4,000 wounded was a minor.

Facing the Israeli invasion, Hamas gunmen often operated from densely populated Gaza neighborhoods, drawing massive Israeli fire that killed and wounded large numbers of civilians, along with fighters. Tens of thousands fled their homes, seeking shelter in U.N. schools.

Among the refugees was Ansam Rahel, 10, who fled shelling of her home in the town of Beit Lahiya and sought cover, along with her family, in the town's U.N. school. On Jan. 17, when an Israeli shell struck the shelter, Ansam was hit by shrapnel that sliced across the top of her head. A thick welt of stitches runs diagonally across her partially shaved scalp, and she covers it with a ski cap.

Takes painkillers, doesn't sleep well
The little girl, who carries herself with quiet grace and sadness, is back home, but her life has changed. Her father is in Egypt, where her 5-year-old sister Dima is undergoing treatment for a serious war injury. Ansam said she takes painkillers and doesn't sleep well.

On Saturday, she briefly returned to her school to say goodbye to friends. She is not well enough to attend and was told by school officials she might be taken to France for further medical treatment. "I didn't let them cry or feel pity for me," she said of her classmates.

Abu Hein, a psychologist who runs a community health center in Gaza City, said his teams interviewed 950 families, among them 2,180 children, in U.N. shelters across Gaza during and after the war.

A majority of parents told the team their children had become more clingy, and about one-third said their children insisted on sleeping in the same room with them.

Since a cease-fire took hold a week ago, Abu Hein's center and other aid groups have sent teams to the most devastated areas, seeking out children for emergency counseling.

On Sunday, three of his counselors drove to the Abed Rabbo neighborhood of the town of Jebaliya, a few hundred yards from the Israeli border. The neighborhood came under heavy fire during Israel's ground offensive, which began Jan. 3. House after house in a radius of hundreds of yards were destroyed, with nothing left except mountains of rubble.

Talking about the war
The counselors spread a large blanket on a small patch of grass, and children soon came running. About two dozen, from toddlers to young teens, sat in a circle and played games, raising their hands or clapping, to break the ice. A counselor then asked the older kids to tell what happened to them during the war.

Asra Aref, 8, said her father raised a white flag when soldiers came closer and spoke Hebrew to them. "The soldiers told him he has just five minutes to evacuate the house," she said.

Counselor Farraj al-Hau tried to assure the children, especially the boys, that it's OK to be scared, that he was also frightened during the war.

Then he asked the children to draw. The youngest ones just managed a few squiggles, but almost all the drawings of the older ones included tanks, helicopters or bodies sprawled on the ground. One boy drew a Palestinian gunman firing an assault rifle at a tank. In another picture, two blue dots meant to be land mines were planted under tanks.

At one point, 5-year-old Saja Abed Rabbo, in pigtails and pajamas, started crying. Counselor Mustafa Haj-Ahmed led her away and sat with her on a nearby chunk of cement, gently asking her what happened. She barely spoke.

Haj-Ahmed walked with her and a relative to her wrecked home. Her grandfather, Mohammed, explained that the family, Saja among them, came under heavy fire in the house for three days before fleeing. He said Saja saw the bodies of two cousins, ages 13 and 14, who were killed in the fighting.

More intensive counseling planned
The counselors said they'd return to the neighborhood for more intensive counseling.

Gaza's 221 U.N. schools are also trying to help the children cope. On Saturday, the first day of school, teachers asked students to share their stories.

The weekly human rights classes will include lessons about nonviolent ways of solving conflicts. Ging said the new program had been planned for awhile, but now has greater urgency.

"We have to stand with the mothers and fathers who want their children to grow up to be doctors, lawyers and civilized in their behavior and their thinking," Ging said. "But for sure, the circumstances here, day by day, are working against all of us who have that agenda."

For 14-year-old Zakariya Baroud, the trauma is still too real. He lost three classmates in an Israeli mortar attack that killed 42 people, most of them civilians, near a U.N. school in the Jebaliya refugee camp. Israel said at the time that troops were firing at a Palestinian rocket squad in the area.

Zakariya said he saw bodies strewn across the main road, including that of his best friend, Bashar Deeb, with a deep gash in his throat.

His father, Baker, spent eight years in Israeli prisons for activities in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a violent group. He said he'd like Zakariya to attend university, but wouldn't talk him out of taking up arms.

"He is seeing suffering right now," he said of his son. "For 22 days, we were not able to sleep. He has witnessed the events by himself, so he, by himself, hates Israel."