The Impact of Historical Trauma on Gaza's Children

The Impact of Historical Trauma on Gaza's Children

When Iman Farajallah was growing up in Gaza, she witnessed the first and second intifadas—Palestinian uprisings against the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank—and subsequent wars with Israel.

"This experience was so corrupt, so frightening, so damaging that there are no words to describe it," says Farajallah, a psychologist now living in the United States, working with refugee children at a public clinic in San Francisco.

"But as a child, I couldn't talk to anyone about how horrifying these experiences were. No one ever spoke to me about my trauma," she adds.

Now, the children in Gaza face a new trauma. The current conflict began on October 7 when HAMAS attacked parts of Israel, resulting in 1,400 deaths and over 200 abductions, including 32 children. In response, Israel began bombing Gaza and initiated a ground invasion.

Children in Gaza, including hostages, found themselves in the midst of the conflict.

According to Palestinian health officials, of the over 10,000 Palestinians killed in Gaza last month, around 4,000 were children. Gaza is becoming a "graveyard for children," said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Monday.

While the World Health Organization warns of the spread of infectious diseases in Gaza, some researchers are concerned that the surviving children may carry scars for the rest of their lives.

Studies show that the cumulative trauma of chronic ethno-political violence has a profound and lasting impact on the mental health and development of children, influencing their functioning and worldview at a young age. Even young people who seem desensitized to violence around them remain deeply traumatized unless given a chance to heal.

This is particularly troubling for children in Gaza, who were already grappling with serious mental health issues long before this conflict. For years, numerous studies have documented unusually high levels of mental and behavioral health problems among Gaza's youth, who make up nearly half of the territory's population. Most of them have never known a life without the threat of violence and conflict.

In recent years, Farajallah returned to Gaza to speak with children and their families, documenting how violence has affected their physical and mental health.

"Many children suffer from symptoms of physical trauma," says Farajallah. "Many of them have been injured by bombs. So, they have scars. Their bodies have shrapnel and fragments. Some of them [are missing] limbs, some have lost their sight."

She has also observed a range of mental and behavioral health symptoms among Gaza's children, such as "fear of the dark, general tension, flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance, sleep problems, and memories of trauma."

Many other studies have recorded high levels of emotional stress and mental health issues among children in Gaza and the West Bank. A 2011 review found a high prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder among Palestinian children, with estimates ranging from 23% to 70%.

According to UNICEF, before the previous conflict in 2021, one in three children in Gaza needed assistance due to conflict-related trauma. In a 2022 study, the non-profit organization Save the Children surveyed nearly 500 children and 160 parents in Gaza. It found that 80% of the participating children exhibited symptoms of emotional stress. About half of them reported having suicidal thoughts, and three in five children engaged in self-harm. Four in five children reported living in depression, grief, and fear.

Studying the Impact of Violence on Israeli and Palestinian Children

A series of international studies conducted on Israeli and Palestinian children over several years has documented that the impact of high levels of ethnic and political violence not only harms the mental health of children but also increases the likelihood that some of them will become aggressive towards others.

In 2007, a group of American, Israeli, and Palestinian researchers began monitoring hundreds of children in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza to understand the political and ethnic violence they were exposed to and its long-term effects.

"We were able to study vulnerability to violence from middle childhood, around 8 years old, into late adolescence and adulthood," says Eric Dubow, a psychology professor at Bowling Green State University.

They examined various cases of political and military violence, from the death of family members, friends, and acquaintances to being held hostage, tortured, or subjected to cruel treatment, to witnessing the destruction of buildings, buses, or property.

Although both Israeli and Palestinian children were exposed to relatively high levels of violence, Dubow says that the level of violence among Palestinian children was significantly higher than among Israeli children, according to all the indicators they examined.