Eleven years ago a Palestinian suicide bomber killed the daughter of Rami Elhanan, an Israeli. In his grief he came to see that the violence that plagues the region is driving both parties to mutual destruction. Together with Palestinian members of the Bereaved Families Forum, a group that promotes reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis, Elhanan now spends much of his time and energy explaining to people that it is both possible and necessary to break the seemingly endless cycle of bloodshed. He is convinced that “by virtue of our shared grief people will listen to us,” see the need for dialogue and work to prevent more tragedies and more bereaved families. This is a task to which the people must rededicate themselves: “We have lost our children,” he argues, “not our reason.”
Behind the Fragile Cease-Fire
As of June 2008, a fragile cease-fire exists between the Israeli government and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. No matter what motivated each side to accept the tahadiya (calm), every day that it holds means lives are spared. For this we all must be grateful, especially when we consider what was happening before the cease-fire.
During the preceding weeks and month, attacks and killings took place almost daily. Few of them were covered by the Western press. In most such instances, responsibility was placed on an “other”: Hamas insisted it must resist “the Zionist entity” that has seized its land; Israel pointed an accusing finger at “Hamas terrorists.”
In late April a mother and four children of the Palistinian Abu Maatak family were killed in the Beit Hanoun area of northern Gaza. Israelis and Palestinians promptly traded accusations. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel expressed “great remorse” for any citizen who is hurt, Palestinian or Israeli, but charged Hamas with making Gazan civilians an “inseparable part of the war.” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak was more blunt: “We see Hamas as responsible for everything that happens there, for all injuries.” The Israeli Arab Ahmed Tibi, a member of the Knesset, countered that Barak bore direct responsibility for the Gazan deaths and dismissed Olmert’s remorse as “meaningless” and as a “typical Israeli response.” Each side was adamant in blaming the other. Hamas pledged revenge, and rockets were fired into Sderot and Ashkelon; Israel vowed to defend its security, and the violence continued.
Beit Hanoun is an area frequently used by Hamas for launching their mortars and Qassams, simple steel rockets filled with explosives, into Israel. As a result it has been the target of frequent Israeli incursions with tanks, armored vehicles and precision bombings. The Israeli defense forces attacked Beit Hanoun during what it called Operation Warm Winter in the closing days of February 2008. Within the space of a few days, Israeli forces killed more than 100 Palestinians, more than 40 of whom were children, and injured over 300 others. Israeli losses were two soldiers killed and seven injured; one civilian was also killed.
Even if the extent of the violence were limited to these numbers plus the physical destruction, it would be appalling. But the real cost of the conflict is far more pervasive, and its primary victims are children. The effects of the violence upon children are devastating, whether the children are in Gaza or in the West Bank or in Jerusalem’s Mercaz Harav School. And half of the 1.4 million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip are 15 years of age or younger.
Trauma at a Nursery School
Two weeks after the suspension of Operation Warm Winter, I visited a nursery school in Beit Hanoun as part of a continuing effort organized by the Daughters of Charity to assist the needy of Gaza. Classes had been canceled during the conflict and for several days afterward; when I visited classes had been back in session for only a week. At the nursery school, which cares for 130 young children, I met Khalid Dahlan, M.D., a psychiatrist from the Gaza Community Mental Health Program. He told the group I was traveling with that many of the children suffer from symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Fear permeates their lives. During his home visits some children would cower in the corner of a room, afraid to speak to him or anyone else. The week the children returned to class, little learning took place, for the teachers could only play games designed to alleviate some of the stress.
Dr. Aish Samour, director of the psychiatric hospital in Gaza, later confirmed Dr. Dahlan’s reports. In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Samour pointed out that because of deep-seated, pathological fear, 30 percent of the Gazan children under age 10 suffer from involuntary urination and other nervous problems such as nail biting, nightmares, sudden outbursts of crying and introversion. “The children of Gaza are not children who live normal lives,” Samour said, explaining that the almost daily scenes of death, destruction, racing ambulances, exploding missiles and bulldozers uprooting trees inflict enormous psychological suffering. (Something similar could certainly be said of the children of Sderot and other Israeli towns close to the Gaza Strip.)
“A child exposed to this much violence becomes violent in his interactions with peers and siblings; his condition lowers his educational level and weakens his ability to concentrate,” Dr. Samour noted. Surveys taken by the Gaza Community Mental Health Program indicate that more than 80 percent of Gaza’s children suffer from moderate to severe post-traumatic stress disorders. Also, the Israeli blockade of Gaza means that child malnutrition is widespread, which further impairs their physical and mental health.
Dr. Eyad al-Sarraj, director of G.C.M.H.P., reminds us that Gazan children have lost the two basic pillars of childhood: a sense of security and a sense of joy and happiness. Almost half of the children studied had seen their fathers beaten and humiliated by Israeli forces. This impresses on a child’s mind that his father is “impotent and incapable of providing security,” and almost immediately the child feels “estranged,” according to Dr. al-Sarraj, who adds that the insecurity, violence and repression push children to extreme acts to express their pain and frustration. A recent G.C.M.H.P. survey pointed to an ominous statistic: 36 percent of the male children between the ages of 8 and 12, and 17 percent of the females, expressed a desire to die as martyrs in attacks on the Israeli forces.
The Only Way Forward
Most of the professionals involved in helping Gaza’s children argue that the only way to begin the healing is to end the violence. What can be done? Surely mutual accusations accomplish nothing. The Israeli siege of Gaza—which resulted in shortages of food, gas, electricity and medical supplies—has produced a humanitarian crisis of mammoth proportions. While the international community can be justly proud of its efforts to bring aid and assistance to the survivors of natural disasters in Myanmar and China, the situation is different in Gaza, where the catastrophe is wrought by deliberate human action. Most other nations watch from afar, some even with approval, the slow strangulation of a whole society, deaf to the cries of its victims, half of whom are children.
The anger, frustration and resentment of the people are directed at Israel and much of the international community. This is fertile ground for extremists seeking to recruit others to their cause. The siege of Gaza by Israel has strengthened the position of the very people it was meant to weaken.
The world’s attention and support must be directed to those groups and individuals who seek to break the cycle of violence. Hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians at the height of Gaza’s “warm winter” issued a statement protesting the escalation of violence on both sides. “The pain of living in daily fear, of being wounded and mutilated for life, of grieving for the loss of loved ones, is the same pain, whether one’s country be oppressed or oppressor, occupied or occupier,” the statement read, while also noting that this is not a contest between two equal forces. The most powerful military in the Middle East, with the full backing of the United States, had been using tanks, fighter planes and gunships against crudely armed militants in an impoverished and densely populated area, driving the people further and further to extremism. The launching of Hamas’s mortars and missiles into Israel in response only brought “additional justification” for further Israeli actions. The supporters of the petition insisted that the only clear and obvious alternative to this bloody escalation was for Israel to open a dialogue with Hamas. Two-thirds of Israelis support cease-fire talks with Hamas, and Hamas has expressed a willingness to dialogue.
Gush Shalom, the Israeli peace organization, expressed it well in an advertisement in Haaretz: “We must talk with Hamas about a cease-fire! No Qassams, no targeted assassinations, no mortar shells, no incursions, no blockade!” Now that a fragile cease-fire is in effect, some indirect talks are taking place.
Facing the Future
Combatants for Peace, a group of some 300 former Israeli Defense Force combat soldiers and Palestinian militants, took shape two years ago. All its members had contributed to the cycle of violence between their peoples, but now they have laid their weapons aside to engage in a joint nonviolent struggle for peace between the two peoples. As Avichay Sharon has put it: “We don’t want to look at each other through weapon sights. We want to see each other as human.”
Bassam Aramin, a co-founder of Combatants for Peace and a Palestinian whose daughter was killed by Israeli forces in February 2007, admits that it is easy to hate and to seek revenge. Indeed, at one point in his life he was about to do just that. That was before he served a seven-year jail sentence for planning an armed attack against the Israeli Defense Forces. In prison Aramin learned about the Jewish people’s history and about the Holocaust, and came to a new understanding: “On both sides we have been made instruments of war. On both sides there is pain, grieving and endless loss. And the only way to stop it is to stop it ourselves,” he says. Members of Combatants for Peace are men who once fought, bombed and killed, thinking this was the best way to serve their people. Now they are convinced that to truly serve the people, they must “fight not each other, but the hatred between us. Only then will the mourning end.”
Bradley Burston, an Israeli journalist, uses stronger terms. When responding to the killings in the Abu Maatak family, he wrote: “It is time for us to stop ‘understanding’ why we kill so many Palestinian civilians. It is time for us to stop explaining away the deaths we excuse as the unfortunate and incidental byproduct of a terrible war. The same crime has been committed time and again, under the same circumstances, for the same reasons, with the same indefensible result…. No more!”
The United States, Israel’s greatest ally, must also say “no more.” Yet in the United States, until fairly recently the principal presidential candidates maintained what former Congressman Paul Findley called “the same empty-headed silence.” Meanwhile, each side continues to blame the other for violations of the cease-fire. Soon Palestinian extremists may well resume their senseless shelling. The death toll will mount. And the children of Gaza will continue to be the innocent victims.