Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Robbed of their childhood; how Palestinian kids cope with trauma under occupation

By K. Künzl - October 16, 2019
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [child arrests]

Sleep deprived and paralysed with fear, a child lays pinned to the metal floor of an Israeli military jeep, wrist constraints digging deeper with every bump in the road as an officer squawks insults about the boy’s mother.  Not even a chance to say goodbye to his family, ripped from the comfort of his bed sheets in the middle of the night, he is forever robbed of a sense of security and safety in his own home.

These are some of the conditions described to lawyers from the Defense Counsel for Children by Palestinian kids as young as twelve years old detained by Israeli officials. 

Whether it be from a night raid, detention, coercive interrogation, searches, or displacement, Palestinian children living under occupation endure physical and mental harassment on a daily basis - psychological scars that will last a lifetime.

Zoughbi Alzoughbi, founder and director of Wi’am: The Palestinian Conflict Transformation Center, emphasised that trauma in Palestinian children cannot be denoted to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder because it is 'complex’ and 'multilayered’, something that can be coped with, not healed.

“Anything can be triggering for a child and cause flashbacks; boots on the ground, a dog barking, the sound of an aeroplane, a door slam, etc...they are hostages to the trauma and fear here,” Alzoughbi said. 

According to Wi’am there are four types of trauma; collective, intergenerational, family and individual.  Even the hardship and stress of the parents or grandparents can be inflicted on the children, subsequently affecting their mental health.

“We find that while it could be that the child suffers from post-traumatic symptoms, trauma is ongoing. When they come back to their environment they are still subject to harassment and triggering factors,” Dima Tadros, Public Relations Coordinator at the Palestine Counseling Centre (PCC), told the Palestine Monitor.

The PCC has observed that children suffering from some form of psychological trauma exhibit behaviour such as bed wetting, nail-biting, anxiety, depression, violent and erratic behaviour, a change in their eating habits, trouble going to the bathroom, in addition to a loss of motivation for school.

The PCC also identifies samoud, steadfastness or resilience, as a sign of mental health. 

“In this case, they are not accepting the unnatural situation of the occupation, they feel to be freedom fighters, which is a coping mechanism for the children,” Tadros stated. 

Palestinians living in the West Bank are subject to Israeli military law and can be tried in court at the age of twelve. The court carries a 99.9 per cent conviction rate and a child can receive up to 20 years in prison for just throwing a stone. 

The Defense Counsel for Children Palestine (DCIP) reports that most of the physical abuse occurs during the transportation phase of the child to the detention facility, as it is not allowed during interrogation.

“It’s all a strategic, psychological game. They (Israelis) use the trauma to their advantage so that by the time you arrive to the interrogation you are exhausted and they can just squeeze you like a lemon,” said Hasan Faraj, a clinical psychologist at the PCC. 

The DCIP also reports cases of children being held in solitary confinement for as much as 30 days as a way to procure a confession, illegal under international law.

A patriarchal societal culture has continued to glorify children that return from prison as heroes, making it difficult for them to process their negative feelings.

Home arrest is also a time in which child detainees are psychologically traumatised.  While this is mostly unique to cases in East Jerusalem, families will pay large sums of money to ensure that their child can stay at home as opposed to serving their entire sentence in a prison.

During this period the family relationship can be severely strained. The parents must watch the child 24/7 for fear that if they leave the house they will be detained again.

“They lose the image of parent as protector and see them as a prison warden,” Faraj told the Palestine Monitor.

“They don't have anything to do, the feeling of time is lost.  Most go to sleep at five or six in the morning when everyone is out of the house, they feel safer this way, and they just want to kill time,” Faraj continued.

Additionally, children experience a great deal of anxiety and boredom while confined inside the house.

“There is a great sense of envy that the rest of the family can leave and he or she cannot, in comparison with an actual prison, at least there is some sense of comradery because you are all stuck inside together,” a representative from The PCC stated.

The PCC has also found that children who have been subject to detention experience frequent flashbacks, in many of these cases children have been reported counting to themselves at night like a prison guard.  Additionally, these children engage in substance abuse from a young age, primarily chain-smoking.

However, most pertinent is a sense of mistrust and fear within the entire community.  

“Children are often incentivised and bribed by Israeli officials to rat out friends and family. For kids who don't have anything, they are vulnerable to these things,” Alzoughbi told the Palestine Monitor.

The PCC finds that children are often resistant to speak to mental health professionals because they do not trust the system, they feel as though it has failed to protect them.  

The community is in a constant state of “hyper arousal and vigilance,” Tadros states, that pushes children deeper into social isolation.

“Children can also be subject to a suspended sentence in which after they are released from prison they are put on probation for a year and can be arrested again at any time.  This is problematic because many live in friction zones, i.e. near settlements and where there are frequent clashes, so many avoid leaving their house altogether,” a representative from the DCIP told Palestine Monitor

Both the PCC and Wi’am employ techniques of counselling children in group settings that channel children’s emotions through positive outlets, such as, field trips, art projects, and theatre performances.

“We find intervention in a clinical setting cause more anxiety for the child and it is more effective to connect them with the environment and nature, in an open setting, indirect intervention,” said Tadros.

Tadros finds that while there is still a stigma around mental health in the Palestinian community an increasing number of parents, children, and teenagers alike are seeking counselling. 

“Trauma from [the] occupation in Palestine in itself is a very unique situation in which traditional diagnosis and criteria do not apply ...We face triggers everywhere we look, just the traffic created by Qalandia checkpoint, for example, you lose three hours of your day, you are surrounded by separation walls, people take their anger out on each other, everything is unpredictable,” Tadros stated. 

Retaining a sense of normalcy is key to coping with trauma.

“It must all work together from the community level, family, organisational network, and policies on a systematic level ...psychological trauma here is way bigger than the individual, this collective trauma affects the whole social fabric of Palestine,” Tadros concluded.

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