Israel’s siege of Gaza
Belal Dabour, a Palestinian doctor from Gaza, argues that the region’s ‘new generation of children only knows stress, wars and aggression’. After nearly a decade of a medieval-like siege imposed by Israel in 2007 in response to the election of Hamas, most of Gaza’s children suffer from malnutrition, stunting, diarrhoea and typhoid. These health problems are not the result of a drought, famine, flood or earthquake but represent the perfectly preventable and carefully calculated policies of the Israeli government. When the siege was first imposed, a senior Israeli official described Israel’s planned response. ‘The idea’, he said, ‘is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger’. In 2012, an Israeli human rights organisation, Gisha, forced the Israeli government into the publication of a ‘Red Lines’ document which chillingly calculated the daily average number of calories needed by Gazans (2,279) before they began to starve. This policy has been described by Richard Falk, a former UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories, as a form of ‘collective punishment’ and ‘a flagrant violation of the most fundamental obligation of the Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law’.
Public Health Catastrophe
The siege is imposed on a population of nearly two million people, most of whom are refugees dependent on food aid from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA), and 50 percent of whom are children. Amnesty International has described Gaza as living in the shadow of a ‘public health catastrophe’ given the restrictions on food, fuel and day-to -day necessities entering the territory as a result of the siege. Fuel shortages have limited the domestic supply of electricity to a few hours a day and left water and waste-water facilities dependent on stand-by generators. According to Amnesty, 65 percent of Gaza’s population only receive access to water ‘every three or four days’ and ‘35,000 cubic metres of raw sewage spew into the streets’. These health problems are compounded by an economy in freefall, with imports and exports reduced to a trickle by the severe restrictions operated by the blockade. The lack of imported building material means that 90 percent of Gaza’s children attend school for half a day owing to a chronic shortage of school buildings; less than half of the current need. Other key social and economic sectors such as health, employment, housing and welfare are all starved of investment in a region lacking the basic infrastructure to support its growing population.
Three Wars in Six Years
These deprivations would be hard enough to bear without the additional effects of three major Israeli wars in six years: Operation ‘Protective Edge’ (2014), ‘Pillar of Cloud’ (2012) and ‘Cast Lead’ (2008-09). A ten year old child in Gaza is likely to bear the long-term psychological scars of war manifesting themselves in behavioural change and symptoms such as fear, stress, bedwetting, aggression, becoming withdrawn and retreating from the world around them. These issues are exacerbated by household poverty and high unemployment levels with families constantly striving to make ends meet. The parental strain of poverty is often passed on to children. As Dr Dabour puts it: ‘we have a new generation who has only witnessed stress, wars, and aggression. They have basically never experienced normal life...’ Psycho-Social Support
The Centre for Global Education, with the support of NIPSA, has been offering psycho-social and educational support to children suffering from the scars of conflict and poverty. In January 2016, we started delivering a new two-year project in Gaza in partnership with the Canaan Institute, our Palestinian partner organisation. The project is being delivered to 400 boys and girls aged 7-10 in four impoverished and marginalised areas of Gaza: Bureij in central Gaza, Deir Al Balah and Khan Yunis in southern Gaza, and Mugragha, a rural area ten km south of Gaza city. Three facilitators from a local community organisation in each area will be trained by the Canaan Institute to deliver education and psycho-social activities using participative, active learning methodologies. The training will facilitate discussion and expressional activities that will enable the children to share problems related to the ongoing conflict in Gaza and parental pressures caused by household poverty. The participating children will attend their local community centre three half-days a week when they are not at school and will receive classes in literacy, numeracy and other key curriculum areas. They will also participate in structured play activities using arts and crafts, games and local cultural traditions. The cumulative effect will be to enhance the children’s learning and help address the underlying causes of their psychological problems with the support of trained psychotherapists and their families. The project will offer workshops to parents to support them in extending psychosocial support to the family home and enable them to better understand their child’s behavioural problems. The children selected for the programme will be those showing the most acute symptoms of psychological distress living in areas that are highly impoverished and marginalised.
Without NIPSA’s support this project could not be delivered and the fact that it is being funded over two years will help to embed the learning experienced by the children. The Centre’s previous experiences of working with children in Gaza showed that these integrated programmes of psycho-social support using educational activities really benefit children over the longer term and help them come to terms with the mental distress caused by life in a perpetual state of conflict and poverty. Therefore, NIPSA’s support of this programme - generously funded by its members – really makes a difference to children’s lives in a high stress environment.
I would also urge all NIPSA members to add their support to the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement initiated by Palestinian civil society against Israel until it complies with international law, respects Palestinian rights and, of course, lifts the siege of Gaza. BDS is a non-violent strategy ‘that allows people of conscience to play an effective role in the Palestinian struggle for justice’. It has enjoyed major successes in persuading large corporations to disinvest from Israel until it complies with international standards in human rights. The most recent example of this success is the decision by British security giant G4S to ‘sell its entire Israeli business within the next 12 to 24 months’. G4S is a major supplier ‘of equipment and services to Israeli prisons and detention centres, in which thousands of Palestinian prisoners are tortured and held – including without charge or trial’. Following a concerted BDS campaign, G4S experienced a 40 per cent fall in its pre-tax profits. We need to widen and sustain support for BDS to prevent more Israeli atrocities in Gaza and secure an early lifting of the Israeli siege. Another generation of children in Gaza should not be exposed to the physical and mental anguish of conflict and chronic poverty.