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Children caught in Gaza war may suffer for decades

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip

One by one, the seventh-graders rose from their old wooden desks and in toneless voices that betrayed neither sadness nor surprise, spoke of horrible things.

"A missile targeted my relatives," said Adhem Abdulal, a tall boy with a bright grin. "My cousin got shrapnel in his leg. Another cousin got shrapnel in his head."

"The F-16 bombed my uncle's house. His stomach got ripped out, and he died," said Mohammed Abu Hassan, fidgeting with the zipper on his red leather jacket.

"Our house was burned by the shelling," said Othman Abu Ghaioon, his dark brown hair framing a pale, expressionless face. "The top two floors are destroyed, but the ground floor got fixed. There are 20 of us there now."

When they had finished reciting their experiences during three weeks of war, the teacher dismissed the class and the students tore from the room, giggling and pushing as they began a game of soccer on the school's asphalt courtyard.

In Gaza, where half the population is under the age of 16, the young bear some of the war's deepest scars. At least 280 children were killed, nearly as many as the number who died in Gaza during the entire second intifada in 2000, according to the Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights. More than 1,000 others were wounded.

Even the children who escaped physical injury face the psychological consequences of living under near-constant bombardment for 22 days and nights. A week into a fragile cease-fire, mental health experts, human rights advocates and parents say they worry that this generation of Palestinian children will suffer the effects of the war for decades to come, growing up hating Israel and becoming easier prey for extremists.

"We are losing the next generation," said John Ging, the top U.N. aid official in Gaza.

"We in Gaza are 1.5-million people in need of immediate psychotherapy," said Issam Younis, director general of the al-Mezan Center for Human Rights. "But the children especially. They have experienced severe trauma. They should cry. They should shout. But the way they are talking about this tragedy, it's not normal."

Younis said he reassured his own son early in the war that children were not being targeted by the Israeli warplanes and that he was safe from the missiles that crashed down around their home. But 6-year-old Mohammed soon started seeing images on television of tiny dead bodies and small, bloodied faces that he recognized as belonging to children his age.

"You're a liar," Younis said his son told him angrily.

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.

A wartime study among hundreds of Gaza children showed a rise in nightmares, bedwetting and other signs of trauma, said psychologist Fadel Abu Hein.

Despite Israeli denials, there is a widespread perception in Gaza that civilians, not Hamas gunmen, were the real targets of the war. Israel's objective, as articulated by a broad cross section of people interviewed in Gaza, was to destroy the broader Palestinian population's will to support Hamas in its campaign of rocket attacks against Israel. Residents say that children were crucial to that effort, with Israel's massive display of firepower intended to instill in them a fear of Israeli strength that will last a lifetime.

But if that was the goal, it does not seem to have worked.

In the seventh-grade classroom, when asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, seven out of 15 students immediately responded with a single word — "resistance."

Hassan Shaban Zeyada, a psychologist with the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, said the war is likely to make Palestinian children more inclined toward violence.

"If your parents can't give you safety, kids will look to others who can," he said. "They're going to want to play the role of the fighter. So the Israeli government is really creating its own enemy."

Zakariya Baroud, 14, lost three classmates in an Israeli mortar attack that killed 42 people. 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, said he would like Zakariya to attend university, but wouldn't talk him out of taking up arms.

"He has witnessed the events by himself, so he, by himself, hates Israel," the father said.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

fast facts

Hamas offers 1-year truce

Hamas officials in Cairo proposed a yearlong truce with Israel and an opening of the crossings into the Gaza Strip on Sunday. Hamas official Ayman Taha said his delegation rejected an Israeli proposal — put forward by Egyptian negotiators — for an 18-month truce with a partial opening of the border.

Instead, Taha said the Hamas officials made a counteroffer of a year, which they now must discuss with the leadership in Damascus, Syria. The Hamas delegation met with Egypt's intelligence chief to discuss the truce, border crossings and reconstruction efforts.

Associated Press

fast facts

Soldiers defended

Special legal teams will defend Israeli soldiers against potential war crimes charges stemming from civilian deaths in the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Sunday. The move reflected growing concerns that officers could be subject to international prosecution, despite the army's claims that Hamas militants caused the civilian casualties by staging attacks from residential areas. "The state of Israel will fully back those who acted on its behalf," the prime minister said.

Access to Gaza

Israel's Supreme Court on Sunday ordered its government to allow free access to Gaza for foreign correspondents, rejecting a ban imposed before the recent Israeli offensive there. Since the offensive ended, Israel has restored access to Gaza for reporters. The ruling would apply to any future conflicts.

Associated Press

Children caught in Gaza war may suffer for decades 01/25/09 [Last modified: Monday, January 26, 2009 7:17am]
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