By Muneeb Abu-Ghazaleh, Islamic Relief’s Country Director in Gaza
Today, millions of children around the globe are living in war-torn cities and countries plagued by violence, where the brutalities of war rob them of their childhoods.
With so many different crises raging all the time, it can be easy to forget the plight of those in Gaza until every once in a while we see the tension explode. When the rockets and bullets fly, as they did two weeks ago, the world suddenly turns its attention to us. There are calls for restraint, sometimes even outpourings of outrage about the price that civilians have to pay, but the second the smoke subdues, we are relegated to the back pages where crises that drag on as long as ours seem destined to sit.
Of course, I understand the sense of exhaustion. For more than a decade, there has been little hope and too much turmoil. But while you can look away, we – the people of Gaza – have to live with this exhaustion every day. At this point, it has permeated our souls, our bones, the very fabric of the society that has helped us to endure for generations.
I at least remember a better time, but I despair for the almost one million children who are trapped here and who have never known anything else. For them, this sense of dread is simply normal.
Unlike children and youth in other war-torn countries, who at least have the option to flee to safety, Gaza’s borders are already tightly closed. This is a big prison from which there can be no escape, no hope of parole or rehabilitation for an entire generation that is trapped in a 41km long strip of land that is currently home to more than 1.9 million people, and counting.
The 13 years of blockade, coupled with economic collapse and insufficient donor support, has created enormous pressure on all aspects of life but health, education, water and hygiene, as well as the overall economy, have probably been the hardest hit. Schools run double, or even triple, shifts because they do not have enough capacity to cater for all children and many educational facilities and buildings were destroyed in the ongoing conflict. Children are falling behind or dropping out of school altogether.
Services and schools catering for children with special needs are being the hardest hit and shutting all across the Strip. Hundreds of children with autism, learning difficulties and disabilities have simply found themselves on the streets, with many families simply not able to give them the support they need.
In the last few months, Islamic Relief has injected emergency funds to keep a handful of these special schools open but unless something major happens, they too will have to shut. I can’t bring myself to think what will happen once they do.
Even if we do somehow manage to keep the schools open, the economy has become so bad that many parents say they can no longer afford the transportation fees. When being forced to make tough choices children with disabilities, especially girls, are simply pushed to back of the line and locked out of the system.
Children with chronic diseases and severe conditions like cancer are also being left to suffer and die out of sight. Several new hospitals have been built in Gaza, but they are not operating because there are not enough drugs or doctors.
Nor can families afford to put food on the table. Two-thirds of households here are now food insecure and tonight, tens of thousands of children will go to bed hungry.
With winter coming and electricity still only available for a few hours every day, many will also go to bed cold and in the dark, afraid and uncertain of what tomorrow will bring.
The compounding stress of this is taking a major toll. According to study after study, we are seeing that significant number of children in Gaza have symptoms associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) caused not just because of the military assaults but also the social and economic pressure their families face.
To me, it is this silent, but no less dangerous, crisis that poses the more worrying threat. The international community cannot ignore it any further. Donors must step up on Gaza and a renewed international effort must take place to find a more a durable solution that will at last restore dignity to the Palestinian people.