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Gaza’s own ‘ground zero’

The trauma of Israeli-Palestinian fighting not only kills the innocent, but darkens the hearts of those who survive. NBC’s Jim Maceda reports from the Gaza Strip.
/ Source: NBC News

Child psychologist Hyad al-Saraaj comes from the right side of Gaza’s tracks — the product of old, landed Palestinian gentry, he doesn’t have to earn a living. That’s a good thing, because the families of his young patients could never afford to pay him.

TODAY, in his well-appointed mental health clinic in downtown Gaza City, Dr. al-Saraaj is talking with 14-year-old Abdullah, who is visibly shaking and holding back tears. The boy explains that he had been earning about $6 a month, working as a shop assistant, which helped out the family and allowed him to save up for school. But Abdullah can’t work these days because he can’t sleep nights. The last time he DID sleep, he says, a huge explosion and the sight of a human limb flying through his window awakened him. It landed on his bedroom floor, steaming and bloodied. Now he can’t look at food either. Especially meat.

Last week’s Israeli airstrike in Gaza City may have killed the Israeli government’s most wanted man, Hamas military chief Salah Shehadeh — the alleged brains behind dozens of suicide bombings — but it also killed nine children living in nearby apartments and took a big slice out of Abdullah’s innocence as well.

As the latest wave of attack and counterattack escalates in Israel and the occupied territories, it has become clear, once again, that the children on both sides are paying the biggest price.

“No one has been spared because Gaza has become like a prison,” say al-Saraaj. “A prison without a roof, when bombs can come to you at any time, unexpectedly, so everybody feels vulnerable and totally exposed.”

After 22 months of conflict, many of those who have survived are paralyzed by fear. Of Gaza’s 600,000 children under the age of 14, over 50 percent show signs or symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Thirty-five percent wet their beds. A majority have nightmares.

And, unlike in the first intifada, or struggle, against Israeli occupation in the late 1980s, this time there is no David-and-Goliath confrontation. Images of kids throwing stones at the Israeli armored vehicles have been replaced by nocturnal smart bombs that kill without warning. The enemy is now on the far side of an electrified fence that surrounds the 140-square-mile strip of land, if he is seen at all.

Still, until the latest Israeli airstrike, most Gazans believed that at least they were safe in their houses and apartment blocks. But the residential area that took the direct hit from the 2,000-pound American-made bomb has become a kind of “ground zero” for trauma. Amid the rubble, inside a building pockmarked by the blast, a makeshift trauma clinic has been set up. Inside, local families register their children with a volunteer psychologist and social worker, who both admit there are no funds to provide any treatment other than some tender loving care.

Of course, neither side in this conflict has a monopoly on trauma. A recent Israeli-funded study finds that more than 30 percent of Jewish children living in West Bank settlements have been exposed to traumatic incidents of violence as well. There are several summer camps in Israel where every child is a walking tragedy — this one lost her sister when a suicide bomber blew up a pizzeria; that one lost his father when he blocked a suicide bomber outside a shopping mall.

Al-Saraaj believes that children on both sides deserve much better. “They are our future,” he warns. “And in Israel as in Palestine, they are the ultimate sufferers of hatred, revenge and killing.”

While most Israelis recognize the problem, few would admit that the pain on both sides actually equates. “It isn’t fair to put Israeli and Palestinian kids in the same basket,” says Fabian Schonfeld, a New York rabbi and philanthropist, who helps fund several camps for young victims of terror in Israel. “Palestinian terrorists actually try to murder our children. It is regrettable that innocent Palestinian kids have died, but they are not targets. The terrorists are.”

Meanwhile, Israeli officials point out that Gaza is not just the repository of innocent Palestinian souls. It’s also a hotbed of terrorism. Boaz Ganor, one of Israel’s chief counterterrorism experts, says that Israel has no choice but to continue to launch raids against militants, as well as “targeted killings” of suspected radical leaders, such as Shehadeh, even if that means an increasing number of Palestinian victims of “collateral damage” will grow up hating Israel even more than their parents do.

“Keep in mind that all of the leaders of terrorist organizations are now operating out of Gaza,” says Ganor. “And from there they control the West Bank as well. Israel must remain aggressive, for its own safety.”

Tell that to Mustapha al-Hawety. He says his life ended when the walls and ceiling of his house collapsed on his family during the recent Israeli airstrike. His wife and two of their six children died under the rubble.

Today the remaining members of the al-Hawety family, still in shock but sedated in a nonprofit clinic in Gaza city, are facing a life with no home, no income, no wife or mother. “I’m sure the Israelis knew there were civilians and children in the area,” says al-Hawety. “We had no idea Shehadeh was hiding in the building next door. We would have fled if we had known. But the Israelis have good intelligence. Collaborators tell them everything. We know we were the targets, too.”

Since that strike, a barrage of Hamas revenge attacks — culminating in Wednesday’s bombing on Jerusalem’s Hebrew University campus, killing seven — has left many Israelis asking if there is any way to break the cycle of terror. Al-Hawety says he knows the answer. “Only peace can heal the wounds of my children, and the children of the Israelis, too,” he says.

But there is no sign of peace in Gaza — this strip of land that has become an icon of poverty, death and abandonment by most of the world community. As the violence increases, with no end in sight, it’s become a laboratory of child trauma, as well. And, al-Saraaj is certain, a breeding grounds for a new generation of suicide bombers or something even worse.

Jim Maceda is an NBC News correspondent based in London, currently on assignment in the Middle East.