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PHOTOS: Gaza's children face an uncertain future

Israel’s latest offensive on the Gaza Strip killed more than 500 children. Those who survive must endure ongoing trauma and displacement.

Photos by Anne Paq and Basel Yazouri/Activestills.org
Text by Anne Paq

Mohammed, age 11, stands in the remains of his home in the Al Nada Towers of Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip after they were destroyed by Israeli strikes. The towers had 90 flats, the homes of many families.

Mohammed, age 11, stands in the remains of his home in the Al Nada Towers of Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip after they were destroyed by Israeli strikes. The towers had 90 apartments, home to many families. (photo: Activestills.org)

I visited Al Nada towers in Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip after they were destroyed by Israeli strikes. The towers had 90 apartments, home to many families. Mohammed, an 11-year-old child, was sitting on top of rubble, waiting to go to school. As I was working on a series of images of destroyed bedrooms, I asked him to bring me to his home to show me his room. We climbed together over more rubble to access the second floor of the tower. Almost nothing remained of his room. It was completely burned and the walls had been blown off. Mohammed told me what he misses the most is “everything” — but especially his computer and his books. Since that encounter, I keep asking myself: what will Mohammed’s view of the world be after his little universe was destroyed this summer? A home can be rebuilt, but what about the psychological impact on his generation?

In Gaza, where the population is very young (over 60 percent of Gazans are under the age of 25), children are everywhere — and they are also the most vulnerable in conflict. Stuck in Gaza, these children only know the occupation and many have already witnessed several Israeli military operations. The latest Israeli offensive, named Operation Protective Edge, lasted for seven weeks and killed more than 500 children. More than 3,000 were injured, and 1,500 lost at least one parent. Most are traumatized. According to the UN, 373,000 children in Gaza are in immediate need of psychological assistance.

Their feeling of insecurity has worsened as many children lost what they consider to be their safe haven: their homes. More than 18,000 housing units were destroyed in the war, leaving 108,000 people homeless. The majority of them are children. The number of Palestinians who fled their homes was the largest seen since 1967. Nearly a third of the population of Gaza, about 500,000 people, were displaced by the offensive.

Displaced families have been crammed into UN schools in very difficult living conditions. Some children also had to sleep in parks, shops, or with relatives. Today, despite a long-term truce, there are still 50,000 Palestinians who remain living in schools. Many cannot live in their houses, which have been either partially or fully destroyed, and help to rebuild is slow to come. Some families have returned to their half-destroyed homes, despite having no running water or electricity. With the winter and the first heavy rains expected within the next two months, it is likely that some of these buildings will collapse and become completely unlivable.

According to the UN, 22 schools were completely destroyed and 118 damaged. Despite a three-week delay, there was a tremendous effort to open the schools as soon as possible so that the children could go back to studying. The classes first focused on recreational and therapeutic activities so that the children can express their feelings after having undergone such traumatic period. Many parents wanted their children to return to school in order to regain some sense of normalcy and routine. But the concept of normalcy remains quite relative for Palestinians who have lived in Gaza under a tight Israeli blockade since 2007. How can we expect these children to grow up normally and look to the future with hope when they are the witnesses and victims of this level of violence? A whole generation of children now live with the trauma of war and fear of further shelling.

An evaluation by the United Nations and humanitarian organizations estimated it will take at least 20 years under the import restrictions currently imposed by Israel to rebuild the Gaza Strip. But how long it will take these children to overcome their trauma? When will they finally live free from the fear of occupation and future Israeli attacks?

During the Israeli military operation known as "Protective Edge", almost a third of the population of Gaza, about 500,000 people, were displaced.

During the Israeli military operation known as “Protective Edge”, almost a third of the population of Gaza, about 500,000 people, were displaced. (photo: Activestills.org)

 

Palestinian children carry goods that were rescued from the village of Khuza'a, which has undergone of intense attacks and was largely destroyed during the Israeli offensive.

Palestinian children carry goods that were rescued from the village of Khuza’a, which has undergone of intense attacks and was largely destroyed during the Israeli offensive. (photo: Activestills.org)

 

A woman holds an injured child from Khuza'a in Khan Younis hospital. Residents of Khuza'a found refuge in the hospital in Khan Younis after fleeing intensive Israeli bombardements of their village. Many residents were killed or wounded as they fled.

A woman holds an injured child from Khuza’a in Khan Younis hospital. Residents of Khuza’a found refuge in the hospital in Khan Younis after fleeing intensive Israeli bombardements of their village. Many residents were killed or wounded as they fled. (photo: Activestills.org)

 

UNRWA schools were opened to house 289,000 Palestinians displaced by the offensive, but they were not equipped to deal with such numbers. UNRWA schools themselves have been targeted while they were sheltering displaced Palestinians, including a school in Beit Hanoun on July 24 (11 killed and more than 200 wounded), a girls school in Jabaliya on July 29 (15 dead, over 100 injured), and a preparatory school in Rafah on August 3 (10 dead).

UNRWA schools were opened to house 289,000 Palestinians displaced by the offensive, but they were not equipped to deal with such numbers. UNRWA schools themselves have been targeted while they were sheltering displaced Palestinians, including a school in Beit Hanoun on July 24 (11 killed and more than 200 wounded), a girls school in Jabaliya on July 29 (15 dead, over 100 injured), and a preparatory school in Rafah on August 3 (10 dead). (photo: Activestills.org)

 

Makeshift shelters built around Al Shifa Hospital served as a refuge for hundreds of Palestinians during the offensive.

Makeshift shelters built around Al Shifa Hospital served as a refuge for hundreds of Palestinians during the offensive. (photo: Activestills.org)

 

A Palestinian boy brings water and blankets inside the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Porphyrius in Gaza City where Palestinians have sought refuge. He was wounded in the head by an Israeli attack on the adjacent cemetery.

A Palestinian boy brings water and blankets inside the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Porphyrius in Gaza City where Palestinians have sought refuge. He was wounded in the head by an Israeli attack on the adjacent cemetery. (photo: Activestills.org)

 

Nader Obu Odeh, age 6, gathers wood from destroyed houses to make a fire, Beit Hanoun, Gaza Strip. The Abu Odeh family, 33 people including 21 children, live in a three-story building that has six apartments. They were forced to flee their house, along with the residents of Beit Hanoun, due to the Israeli attack. They took shelter in the Jabalya Secondary School for boys, in Jabalya Refugee Camp, but returned to their bombed home because of harsh conditions in the school. Since then, they are living in the remains of their damaged house without electricity and gas.

Nader Obu Odeh, age 6, gathers wood from destroyed houses to make a fire, Beit Hanoun, Gaza Strip. The Abu Odeh family, 33 people including 21 children, live in a three-story building that has six apartments. They were forced to flee their house, along with the residents of Beit Hanoun, due to the Israeli attack. They took shelter in the Jabalya Secondary School for boys, in Jabalya Refugee Camp, but returned to their bombed home because of harsh conditions in the school. Since then, they are living in the remains of their damaged house without electricity and gas. (photo: Activestills.org)

 

Ten days after the announcement of the long-term truce, a Palestinian child sits among clothing collected by his family in the rubble of their destroyed house in the At-Tuffah neighborhood of Gaza City, which was heavily attacked during the Israeli offensive.

Ten days after the announcement of the long-term truce, a Palestinian child sits among clothing collected by his family in the rubble of their destroyed house in the At-Tuffah neighborhood of Gaza City, which was heavily attacked during the Israeli offensive. (photo: Activestills.org)

 

A Palestinian child with a kite stands in front of the destroyed Al Nada towers in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip. The towers had 90 flats.

A Palestinian child with a kite stands in front of the destroyed Al Nada towers in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip. The towers had 90 flats. (photo: Activestills.org)

 

A Palestinian child from the Maadi Hassanin Kamal family plays in his destroyed house in the At-Tuffah neighborhood east of Gaza City, 10 days after the announcement of the long-term truce. The family of eight returned to live in a house that has been nearly destroyed and threatens to collapse because of the damage. Their house, like most the buildings in the area, now has no running water or electricity.

A Palestinian child from the Maadi Hassanin Kamal family plays in his destroyed house in the At-Tuffah neighborhood east of Gaza City, 10 days after the announcement of the long-term truce. The family of eight returned to live in a house that has been nearly destroyed and threatens to collapse because of the damage. Their house, like most the buildings in the area, now has no running water or electricity. (photo: Activestills.org)

 

Eleven members of the Amal Al-Athamna family of Beit Hanoun live in an empty store without windows or toilets near the Kamal Edwan hospital in Jabaliya.

Eleven members of the Amal Al-Athamna family of Beit Hanoun live in an empty store without windows or toilets near the Kamal Edwan hospital in Jabaliya. (photo: Activestills.org)

 

The Gaza school year began three weeks late because many schools were damaged. The first weeks of classes focused on recreational and therapeutic activities so that the children could express their feelings after underoing such a traumatic period.

The Gaza school year began three weeks late because many schools were damaged. The first weeks of classes focused on recreational and therapeutic activities so that the children could express their feelings after underoing such a traumatic period. (photo: Activestills.org)

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    1. Whiplash

      The writer bleats:

      “When will they finally live free from the fear of occupation and future Israeli attacks?”

      The answer is simple, when they, their parents and leaders stop attempting to kill and harm Israelis and accept Israel as the state of the Jewish people, they will no longer have to fear the occupation or Israeli attacks.

      Israel handed over administration of the Gaza strip to the PA following the Oslo Accords. In 2005 Israel withdrew all Israelis from Gaza. The Palestinians used the handover of administration and land to build up and conduct terrorist operations against Israelis.

      As a result Gazans lost the mobility which they had in and out of Gaza, including the employment which 40% of the Palestinian population found in Israel. The importation of deadly arms resulted in a sea blockade of the territory. The running of terrorists and arms in and out of Egypt resulted in Egypt’s closure of the tunnels.

      The people of Gaza through their elected leaders decided to turn Gaza into an armed fortress in urban areas and used civilian structures for the better prosecution of armed combat. Hamas and Islamic Jihad used their civilians as human shields so that they could target Israel and its civilian population.

      Harm to Gaza’s civilian population was inevitable when Israel exercised its right of self defense. Hamas and Islamic Jihad and the Gazan people knew that their urban warfare strategy would exact a heavy death toll, yet they initiated a war with Israel.

      Shimon Peres has often been heard asking why Gaza shoots missiles at Israel. What do they gain or accomplish? Everything Gazans want for Gaza could be accomplished by laying down their arms and stopping attacks against Israel. For the past 21 years Gazans have chosen a policy of terrorism and violence against Israel. Maybe they should try a different tactic, peace.

      Reply to Comment
      • Sid

        Do you honestly believe your own comments??
        Palestinians should stand by and continue to be an occupied country whilst Israel continues to steal their land and be the ‘Governers’ of the largest prison camp on the planet??!! Gazans have as much right as you and i to enjoy lifes necessities such as running water, electricity, the right to trade and educate their children without the controls Israel places upon them. Netenyahu should be tried for war crimes. And hopefully when the Americans are no longer the worlds super power and defenders of the bullying nation of Israel he will be.

        Reply to Comment
        • Pedro X

          Sid, seriously, there is not one Jew in Gaza. There have been no Jewish communities in Gaza since 2005. So how are Israelis stealing Gaza’s land?

          Palestinians have had control of their own resources since 1994. They have squandered and abused and misused those resources. Gazans control the coastal aquifer and have polluted and over pumped it so it is on the verge of collapse. They failed to build desalination plants which can provide for all of their water needs. They have an energy plant capable of producing double the electricity it now produces but the Gazans have never built the electrical relay stations to take full advantage of the production capacities of this plant. The head engineer of the Gaza Energy Plant sits in jail for designing rockets to be shot into Israel.

          Instead of building schools and a decent health system Gazans have invested in war materials in the billions of dollars. Their trade came to a halt because of their export of suicide bombers and violence thereby destroying their own economic interests.

          Gazans are sad sacks because they were given the chance to build a Singapore on the Med but instead built another violent Somali and wonder why no one wants them.

          Reply to Comment
          • Sid

            Thanks for reply Pedro however when you want to make crass comparisons to African country’s Rwanda maybe a better choice considering the mass atrocities that went unheeded there too? As for Arab leaders – your comparison is with those non corrupt,pacifist presidents and prime ministers of Europe,USA and Israel right??!

            Reply to Comment
    2. It’s horrid, in our modern world, we’d use such criminal acts upon the peoples of Palestine (both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank)to destroy and to destroy – to imprison in their own land people who did nothing but try to keep what was theirs and was stolen by a ridiculous religious ideology and the thieving Zionist marauders. I stand by the Palestinian peoples always.

      Reply to Comment
      • Hyman Rosen

        Ridiculous religious ideology? Isn’t Hana’s who expects to defeat Israel with the help of talking trees?

        Reply to Comment
      • Pedro X

        It is a pity that in 66 years since the 1948 war, the Arabs have not produced a leader who finds value in his people’s children other than as cannon fodder.

        Arabs in Gaza were handed control of their destiny in 1994 but royally messed it up. Instead of building a Singapore Gazans have built a Somalia.

        Reply to Comment
        • O'Brien

          Dear Pedro,

          Look into 1948 – Keep your Singapore and Somalia references for your own scales. Creation born from extreme violence, terror, rape, pillage and murder. One that continues with lies and ideologies that in all honesty in the micro an individual would have been certified mentally unstable and a threat to society, in the macro, you have it’s name. Israel. Please educate yourself and realise how pathetic your comments are. If you think my comments are negative or unbalanced, Pedro, do look at history, some will never learn from it, so they will just repeat it. Good day to you.

          Reply to Comment