Families Say The Gaza Violence Is Taking An Immense Mental Toll On Their Kids

Young Palestinians inspect the damage an Israeli attack inflicted on houses in the Sabra neighborhood of Gaza City. A man who lives in the middle of the Gaza Strip says his family is traumatized by the violence.
Young Palestinians inspect the damage an Israeli attack inflicted on houses in the Sabra neighborhood of Gaza City. A man who lives in the middle of the Gaza Strip says his family is traumatized by the violence.
Mustafa Hassona/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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The battle between Israel and Hamas is taking a deep toll on people in the Gaza Strip, where families are being forced to live in a war zone. And in separate interviews with NPR, two people — one in Gaza, one in Israel — who spoke about the violence also discussed their desire to keep children safe.

One view came from Gaza, where a father of a young son says he is desperate for safety and security — conditions that seem hopelessly out of reach amid sustained airstrikes and artillery barrages conducted by Israel.

"We just don't want to die under the rubble of our houses," says Bilal Shbair, an English teacher who lives in the central Gaza Strip.

Shbair says that when he walked into his garden to check on his chickens Tuesday morning, he found a piece of shrapnel.

"I think it's a piece of like, a missile," Shbair tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "I found it on the ground around where my kid Adam and some other children of the neighborhood play. And also we sit there having coffee, talking about life as a whole."

The mental stress of living under the constant threat of violence is wearing on him and his neighbors, Shbair says. And while the area is suffering dire shortages of water and electricity, he says the need for help runs deeper.

"We are in desperate need for psychologists and psychiatrists," he says, "because we are experiencing more danger day after day, or even hour after hour."

The recent violence has killed at least 230 Palestinians and left more than 1,700 people wounded, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. The U.N. says at least 62 of the people killed in Gaza are children. In Israel, authorities say the violence has killed 12 people, including two children.

Eleven of the Palestinian children killed by Israeli airstrikes were participating in a program to help them deal with trauma, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.

The U.N. says more than 58,000 Palestinians have been displaced from their homes because of the violence, many of them taking refuge in schools. Israel blockaded Palestinians in Gaza by air, land and sea, and Egypt keeps its border with Gaza largely closed.

Over the border in southern Israel, the town of Sderot, less than a mile outside of Gaza, has seen a mass evacuation in the past two weeks. These days, residents who stayed behind listen for air raid sirens — a signal that they have around 15 seconds to reach a safe shelter.

"I can tell you that even though we're not people who are warmongers, we are definitely in favor of the ongoing campaign," says Eyal Hajbi, a senior regional security officer. He adds, "We need this campaign so as to give for the long run, the safety and security for the children who live here."

Sderot has long been a target for militants' rockets coming out of Gaza.

Militants have fired about 900 rockets at the region during the current conflict, Hajbi tells NPR's Jackie Northam. He and others in the area say they want Israel to keep attacking Hamas.

Since hostilities reached a new intensity last Monday, militants have fired more than 4,000 rockets toward Israel from the Gaza Strip, the Israel Defense Forces said on Thursday. Around 90% of those rockets have been intercepted by the Iron Dome air defense system, the military says, while hundreds of others have misfired, falling back down into Gaza.

There is an increasing number of reports that a cease-fire could be reached, possibly in the next 24 hours. For people who live in fearful anticipation of the next sound of impact from artillery or bombs, an end to the violence can't come quickly enough.

"What people on the ground express is a sense of terror and the nightmare that doesn't end," Leni Stenseth of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency told NPR's Morning Edition earlier this week. "The psychological impact on children that have to live through night after night with constant attacks from airplanes, hearing the shelling, needs to be acknowledged."

Shbair says he's been unable to sleep for more than an hour at a time, with the persistent sounds of militants' rockets and Israel's attacks.

"I worry about my kid Adam," he says. "When he listens to such bombs, he runs away. I embrace him and hug him and [he] said to me, 'Daddy, ... boom, boom.' How can a child or a kid who is like one year and a half almost feel this? We are all deeply traumatized."

Across the border, many of the 10,000 Israeli citizens in Sderot's region evacuated a couple days after the conflict began, Hajbi says.

Another Israeli security official tells NPR that the last couple nights have been quieter: Sometimes four to six hours can pass without hearing incoming rockets, he says. But on Thursday afternoon, sirens began wailing across southern Israel once again, signaling another round of attacks.

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