Monday 27 February 2017

All innocence lost in rush to escape a Gaza childhood

Grief and isolation are pushing Gaza's youth into the arms of radical parties, writes Shona Murray

Shona Murray

SHATTERED LIVES: Eight-year-old Maha Sheik Khalil was paralysed after heavy shelling of her neighbourhood of Shejaiya in East Gaza. Her father and granddad care for her, as her mother was killed
SHATTERED LIVES: Eight-year-old Maha Sheik Khalil was paralysed after heavy shelling of her neighbourhood of Shejaiya in East Gaza. Her father and granddad care for her, as her mother was killed

It's been just over a year since the cessation of the 53-day war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas which saw the death of over 2,200 Palestinians - 1,492 civilians and 513 of whom were children. Israel lost 66 soldiers and seven civilians including a Thai national.

It was an unusually high death toll by Israeli standards, occurring as a result of the ground offensive which was launched in a bid to control Hamas rockets and destroy its tunnel system - discovered after the initial phase of the offensive.

Aside from the high death toll, infrastructure in Gaza has been completely decimated: over half a million people are still living in shelters and unemployment is at almost 50pc. Eighty per cent of people rely on assistance from international NGOs such as UNRWA - the UN Agency in charge of Palestinian refugees. In addition, large scale NGOs, such as World Vision, specialise in supporting traumatised children and young adults caught up in warfare though its psychological counselling and successful 'Child Friendly Places' - safe zones for children which allow them space to learn and express their emotions after experiencing psychological scarring.

Prospects for Gaza's youths and young adults are grim. The economy is almost non-existent from eight years of a land, sea and air blockade which has strangled output.

Hamas claims that Israel was the first to break an internationally-brokered truce in place since November 2012, and retaliated in 'resistance' to Israeli military action, despite Israel's colossal military advantages, and fast-rising Palestinian death toll. In doing so it increased international attention to Israel's lightning bombardment of the strip, and was successful in garnering a substantial amount of worldwide condemnation. It was less successful in its demand for an end to the blockade, although Israel has since somewhat loosened its rules on goods/people entering and leaving the area.

Israel maintains its offensive - the third military operation of its kind in six years, and this one even more brutal and destructive than the last two - was in response to continuous rocket attacks from Hamas in Gaza. But as usual, Gazan civilians pay a heavy, heavy price.

Not only are Gazans witnessing the continued deterioration of an already impossible situation, they are seeing the total de-civilisation of the strip. Last month, a UN report by United Nations Conference on Trade and Development confirmed that Gaza will be completely uninhabitable by 2020. The report also confirms that last year's conflict, the indefinite blockade, as well as poor political governance from within, has accelerated Gaza's "de-development".

As an area which relies on "coastal aquifers as their main source of freshwater" its water is not safe to drink and is regularly polluted by Gaza's ongoing sewage problems, it also states.

Reconstruction has not started. "People are paying the price; they are still living in shelters", said Mohamed el Halabi, World Vision area programme manager in Gaza.

One of the "mistakes of the international community" is that they have reduced the funds to Gaza for children. There are fewer summer camps run by international NGOs, and now children are joining summer camps run by political parties - in some areas run by radical parties. He declined to say which parties, however, except to say "it's clear: we see these summer camps, and they're not run by the UN, and they are training these children. It's very worrying; these are children now but in three or four years they will be youths and nobody can control if they are extremist or radical."

International NGOs in Gaza are the lifeblood for Palestinians, particularly Gaza's children.

Among them is 15-year-old Imam from Beit Hanoun, north Gaza. She is suffering extreme trauma and nightmares after witnessing a hideous level of violence during intense shelling in her neighbourhood. On the 10th day of Ramadan the shelling of Beit Hanoun involved the destruction of a UN school in which hundreds of civilians were hiding for safety.

Imam's family left for a shelter near the school, but she returned back to her home to help some of the elderly women, collecting water for them. At that point, shelling intensified upon the arrival of several Hamas militants on the streets. "The IDF had told us to go, but I couldn't leave the women. Moments later, I saw white smoke and loud noises. I saw three old women; they were killed; and their heads were cut off.

"I also heard many bombs and saw lots of people cut to pieces; a lot of their blood came on to my clothes and I went unconscious."

Imam was taken to nearby Kamal Adwan hospital in Beit Lahiya which took many of the victims from this onslaught: "I saw a man split in half". She says she sees this image "every night".

A cousin informed the family that World Vision could help through its CFS programme; her treatment was deepened and extended to include several psychologists and medication to help her sleep.

"I am better than before I was transferred to specialised psychological care, but I feel sadness when I think of everything," she says.

Another heartbreaking case is that of eight-year-old Maha Sheik Khalil from Shejaiya, who was left paralysed from the neck down and lost her pregnant mother and sister in one of the bloodiest days of the Operation Pillar of Defence - the Israeli military name for the 2014 operation.

Maha was stuck under rubble for several hours before she was rescued, and brought to the Shifa hospital in Gaza, where she lay for several weeks without moving. She was given clearance to leave Gaza for temporary treatment in Turkey, which yielded some limited results. She can now move her head and hands but she has no muscle action or ability to grip.

Her father, Hamad Mohammad Al Sheikh Khalil says it is too traumatic for the family to relive that fateful day except to say: "we were massacred. Maha stayed six months in Turkey with no family - that really hurt her psychologically.

"We also lost the backbone and the life of this house - my wife, he says."

The main hospital in Gaza - the Shifa Hospital cannot provide Maha with any treatment. And her condition is set to worsen with time.

Not only are the injured and sick a concern for NGOs, but the question arises as to where Gaza's extraordinarily young population will turn to for money and survival?

"We worry about new radical parties; and this could be a "natural reaction" for people to be more violent and to join any party to get money to support their families" says el Halabi.

While civilians are learning to deal with the shock of last year's offensive, the spectre of Salafist, radical groups emerging in Gaza looms large.

Halabi says there are concerns that extremism and terrorism will increase. "The natural reaction for a young father who has many children and can't buy basic needs, is to work anywhere for anyone."

International donations pledged at the end of the offensive last year have not materialised and the result is evident in the low number of child-orientated activities across the board. This is a "bad indicator for the future of the children; their education, but we are concerned that they would join any party - an extremist party where they are paid well."

"This will carry a headache for everyone; not just in Gaza, but for our neighbour, Israel."

Hamas denies that it is facing a threat from within from dissident Salafist extremists who share an alignment with Isis. In recent weeks, several rocket attacks from Gaza landing in southern Israel are from groups like Sheikh Omar Hadid Brigades who remain defiant against orders from central command in Hamas.

Israel responds with surgical strikes on Hamas military sites, including training facilities, and still holds Hamas responsible for all rocket fire from the Gaza strip.

Publicly, Hamas denies there is any threat to its authority from the Salafist groups: "Hamas won't fight any person that adopts a certain ideology - there's nothing to worry about with these Salafist groups", Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri told the Sunday Independent.

"We're not concerned about who launches rockets - Israel hasn't respected the ceasefire from last year, so we can't impose this on other parties."

www.worldvision.ie

Sunday Independent

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