While the devastation in Gaza continues to unfold daily on our television sets, and great attention is paid to the cost of the fighting for Gaza’s civilians, very little is reported by the international media about how the children in southern Israel are handling the stress.
With more than 9,000 rockets launched into southern Israel since 2006, and hundreds more in recent days, many of these children have literally grown up in a state of terror. No place is this more apparent than in the western Negev town of Sderot.
The launching of missiles, rockets and mortars from Gaza by terrorist groups such as Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad is not simply a random occurrence, as some would have you believe; rather it is are part of a calculated effort to maximize civilian casualties. The rockets are fired consistently between the hours of 7 and 9 in the morning, as well as towards the end of the workday, so as to coincide with the times that Israelis are taking their daily commutes to work or school. In an attempt to deal with this reality, some Sderot schools now start and end their school days15 minutes later that their counterparts in other parts of the country.
When a rocket is launched from the Gaza Strip into Sderot the “Code Red” alert system is sounded. This allows a 10- to 15-second window of opportunity for residents to find shelter before the missile impacts. Just how long is 15 seconds? Well, just imagine a kindergarten schoolteacher trying to shepherd a classroom of 5-year-olds to safety in a quarter of a minute. Or imagine a mother or four young children trying to decide which child to pick up and bring to safety first. The very nature of a healthy life as set forth by the United Nations Rights of the Child has been turned on its head for the children of Sderot.
According to Dr. Adriana Katz, a psychiatrist and trauma specialist working in Sderot nearly a third of Sderot’s children suffer from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), though Katz is resistant to using the word “post” because the rocket attacks are current and constant. Symptoms include intrusive and distressing flashbacks, repeated nightmares, anxiety attacks, incontinence, poor concentration, angry outbursts, feelings of isolation, insomnia and loss of interest in activities. For an adult, suffering from these symptoms can be debilitating but can be managed (although not always cured) with appropriate treatment. However, for a child who is still developing emotionally, neurologically and psychologically, PTSD can have debilitating lifelong consequences.
The consequences of constant rockets falling around them have permeated into the most mundane aspects of the children’s lives. For instance, in Sderot it is now normal practice to take showers in under a minute for fear that a siren will sound while they are washing up. Music is seldom played as it may block out the sound of the red alert, and even seat belts are no longer worn in cars because they can restrict a quick exit. When rocket fire is more constant, entire families will often live in bomb shelter for days on end.
Unfortunately, the trauma suffered by a large portion of Israeli children is going vastly underreported today. As concerned citizens, we need to start reminding ourselves that the conflict is not quite as black and white as some might make it out to be. The truth is, Palestinian and Israeli children are both suffering from the ongoing conflict. The question is, who is ultimately to blame? Much of the world would have you believe it is Israel, but reality tells another story. Why, for instance, has Hamas built no bomb shelters in Gaza? Why have they continued to use innocent Palestinian civilians as human shields to protect the lives of their fighters? Why do Hamas fighters continue to operate from schools, mosques, hospitals and civilians’ homes? Every time we neglect to report both sides of the story we inadvertently risk becoming enablers for Hamas’ cause.
Sderot’s children have become the invisible victims in the Arab-Israeli conflict. As their suffering often does not result in death due to Israel’s security measures, their psychological despair has become largely ignored. For the readers of the international media, this has meant that we have been deprived of an accurate depiction of the events taking place in Israel and the Gaza Strip. Unfortunately, the media have not yet captured the totality of the events taking place in the Middle East today. More than a million Israelis are currently in range of the rockets. That is close to one in seven of the total Israeli population or the proportional equivalent of 44 million Americans. As long as we are provided with a limited perspective on the problem, we will continue to come up with only limited solutions, and the yearning for peace that so many of us strive for will continue to elude us.
Joshua Altman, a clinical social worker, is a doctoral fellow at Smith College School for Social Work in Northampton, Mass., and a practicing psychotherapist with a focus on child and adolescent mental health.
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