About 100 Children Were Running Towards Us In Panic, Terror In Their Eyes

Illustration: Uzma Mohsin

Personal Histories: A series on true experiences

THE FRONT PAGE photograph of a group of running children under the headline Heartless in Gaza brought back vivid memories of my visit to Gaza in December 2006. I was on a review mission of the mental health programme for the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA), part of the team visiting a school for the visually challenged and talking to social workers and psychologists working in Gaza’s schools.

Suddenly, the security personnel asked us to return to the armoured vehicle and go back to the main office. There was information of shooting in the city. As we were moving to the vehicle, I witnessed a horrifying scene: about 100 school children were running towards us in panic, with terror in their eyes. The picture is etched in my mind. A member of the local staff said: “Dr Murthy, what is shocking to you is a daily experience for the citizens of Gaza.”

I had visited Gaza and the West Bank in 2005, as part of another evaluation of the UNRWA. During that visit, despite having a valid visa on a special UN passport, we were subjected to long delays and uncertainty. There were no gestures of friendliness from the border personnel. Many things, besides being security requirements, were done just to humiliate individuals. Visits to schools were most disturbing. Young boys and girls described the terror of sudden intrusions by the Israeli army and the humiliation of their parents. Children always drew pictures of helicopters bombing, tanks harming people and children throwing stones at soldiers.

We, too, were subjected to the arbitrariness of the Israeli police. During a trip from Jerusalem to Ramallah, West Bank, the driver could not take us back to Jerusalem as, at the checkpoint — there are innumerable checkpoints across the city — the police said he didn’t have the permission to do so. Ultimately, a senior medical officer drove us back!

A question that haunts anyone visiting Gaza and Jerusalem is: “Who is the aggressor, and who the aggrieved?” There is evidence that the trauma experienced by the adolescents of Palestine is far greater than that of Israeli adolescents. Coincidentally, this month a research study titled ‘Post traumatic symptoms, functional impairment, and coping among adolescents on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: a cross — cultural approach’ has been published in Applied Psychology. It studied 1,016 Israeli and 1,235 Palestinian adolescents to understand their exposure to trauma; presence of post-traumatic symptoms; functional impairment and coping strategies. These results indirectly reveal the aggressor and the aggrieved.

In the Palestinian sample, 37 percent of students had symptoms meeting the criteria for full Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In the Israeli sample, seven percent of adolescents reported symptoms meeting the criteria for full PTSD. There was an almost five-fold difference between the two groups.

A question that haunts anyone visiting Gaza and Jerusalem is: ‘Who is the aggressor, and who the aggrieved?’

Looking at the current conflict, based either on the decades-old UN resolutions or the degree of trauma experienced by adolescents in the two countries, it is clear that Israel is the aggressor and Palestinians are the aggrieved. The argument used by Israel that it is also victim of violence against its population is blatantly inappropriate. The extreme degree of violence by Israel against the Palestine population is seen in the difference in the reported deaths in the three weeks of invasion: Israel, 13 and Palestines, over 1,300.

It is time that India stops giving priority to the military benefits of collaboration with Israel, calls for not only the cessation of hostilities but also the end of occupation and of treating the Palestinians in Gaza as ‘prisoners’ in their own homeland. For too long, far too many countries have not addressed the basic rights of the Palestinians for their homeland. Equally.

R Srinivasa Murthy Is 61; retired Professor of Psychiatry, NIMHANS, Bangalore


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