New York – One day hostilities between Israelis and Palestinians will end, and hope will be reborn. One day reason (or plain exhaustion) will prevail. But the remnants of the war –tens of thousands of dead and injured, hundreds of thousands of terrified people–, will be a constant reminder of the futility and cruelty of war. And those hurt and maimed will need a solution not only for their physical injuries, but for their mental traumas as well, traumas that mostly affect children.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, at least 29 children were killed when Hamas fighters attacked Israel on October 7, and about 30 children were taken hostage by Hamas. Gaza’s government media office reports that since October 7, an estimated 5,500 children have been killed in the Gaza Strip, and hundreds more are reported missing and may be trapped under the rubble. Not only Gazan children are victims. In the occupied West Bank, Israeli security forces and settlers have killed an additional 53 Palestinian children since October 7.
The increasing killing and maiming of children have prompted international rights advocates to call on UN Secretary General to immediately place Israeli forces, the al-Qassam Brigades (Hamas’ armed wing) and Islamic Jihad to his “list of shame,” rather than wait until his regular annual report next year. The “list of shame” names governments and nongovernmental armed groups responsible for grave violations against children in armed conflict, including killing and maiming, abduction, attacks on schools and hospitals, and denial of humanitarian access.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO,) at least 533 people have been killed in 178 attacks on medical facilities in Gaza between October 7 and November 21, and the majority of hospitals in Gaza are no longer functional. Israel military’s blockade of water, food, medical supplies, electricity and fuel, and provision of a minimum of humanitarian assistance into Gaza amounts to collective punishment of the civilian population, which is a violation of international humanitarian law and a war crime, according to Tufts University law professor Tom Dannenbaum.
The tragedy of this situation is that Israelis and Palestinians have more in common than not. At different times in history both have been ostracized and endured persecution that has threatened their survival. Both communities have strong family values, both want to live in their own land, and both equally enjoy a falafel sandwich, hummus or baba ghanoush, even though they may disagree on the origin of these popular dishes.
For Israelis and Palestinians, recognizing their common humanity, born in part of catastrophic stories, could be a step towards peaceful coexistence. The needs are mind blowing, and while Israel has a strong and well provided health care system, the Palestinians health system in most of Gaza has almost been totally destroyed after the recent Israeli attacks.
At some point, when overwhelming pain and destruction has been the result, the intergenerational trauma of decades of hostilities, including the current war, can be processed and integrated. This means that the impact of war on innocent civilians can be accepted as a fact, while understanding the trauma of war cannot continue dictating emotions and behaviors in the present, or future. Israelis and Palestinians can liberate themselves from being held hostage to the past, and end the cycle of violence that will only perpetuate trauma and despair for future generations.
Strategies for moving through and beyond the trauma include validating that the war is happening and atrocities did happen; grieving the losses of war, past and present; having compassion for the communities for the horrors experienced and witnessed, especially by children; and drawing on practices that will help manage and soothe the stress of war.
Many Israelis, including those who survived the October 7 attack, as well as many Palestinians, are recognizing that years of violence have not righted injustices nor created safety. They are also realizing that the enemy is not the Israelis nor the Palestinians. The real enemy is war, for which children are paying the heaviest price. As Janti Soeripto, head of Save the Children has said, “Give children the chance to be children, even for a little while.”
César Chelala is an international public health consultant and an award-winning writer on human rights issues. He is also the foreign correspondent for The Middle East Times International (Australia), and a contributing editor for The Globalist.