Children of Gaza: Scarred, trapped, vengeful

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

1,000 days into the Israeli blockade and Palestinian youngsters are denied medical help, education and any hope of a decent future

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.

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.

'Dispatches: Children of Gaza' airs tomorrow at 8pm on Channel 4; childrenofgazafund.org/

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future