During the violent days of the Intifada, I was told by a PLO official, on one of my visits to Tunis, that he was concerned about the damage being done to the national spirit of the struggle by the portrayal of our heroic Palestinian children as victims. At the same time, back in Gaza, I still had to deal with the Israeli occupation authorities who were accusing me of using children and their alleged trauma for political propaganda.
How did children become involved in the Intifada? The world watched in amazement, seeing youngsters not only confront, but even draw Israeli soldiers into battle. More than anybody else, the Israelis themselves were desperate to know the answer. Their self-perception was suffering, and their image in the eyes of the world was being damaged.
Many factors contributed to children's involvement in the Intifada. In the Gaza refugee camps, an average child of 12 will belong to a large family, and have at least seven siblings. Living in cramped two-roomed dwellings, he will spend most of his time out on the street. There he will congregate with his friends. They will do everything together: play, eat, fight, sing and weep. Home is an overcrowded space, where Mother is struggling to make ends meet. Father rises daily at 3:00 a.m. to go to work as a laborer in Israel, assuming he is lucky enough to be allowed in across the border that day, and to find work once there. This is no small achievement, as unemployment levels for Palestinians in Gaza stand at more than 50 percent. After such a stressful day, Father will come home that evening so edgy that anything will make him angry. He will often express his frustration by shouting at the equally exhausted mother.
One of the first impressions on arriving in Gaza is that it is full of children.
Half of its one million population is below the age of 15. School offers no respite for the children. Indeed, due to economic and demographic pressure, most schools are forced to have two shifts. The first shift starts at 7:00 a.m., with an average classroom size numbering 70 children. In order to cope, teachers tend to be strict disciplinarians who will deliver corporal punishment during lessons if a child so much as gets an answer wrong.
The majority of the Gaza population is Muslim. Islam for them is a mixture of divine rules and cultural traditions, demanding absolute compliance, even a fatalistic approach to everyday life. Men gain power through money and political position. They tend to consider their women and the family as a whole to be their exclusive property.

Seven Years of Curfew

These are the conditions that led to the involvement of refugee-camp children in the Intifada. They were being defiant, defending their playground, their territory against the invading Israeli army. They were also rebelling against all forms of imposed authority, including that of family and teacher. And they were reacting to the sight of the humiliation of their fathers, who were helpless when abused or beaten by Israeli soldiers. The children were identifying with new symbols of power that they saw raging in the streets. They were magnetized by armed soldiers, and by mysterious masked and daring activists. If children elsewhere were playing at war, in Palestine the game was for real. Shootings were with bullets. Bones were broken with batons. Tear gas penetrated into every room. Homes were dynamited. And blood - real blood - poured off the injured and the dead.
During the course of the Intifada, over 100,000 Palestinians were detained in prison and the vast majority of them tortured. More than 2,000 people were killed, a third of them children. Ninety percent of children were exposed to tear gas. Fifty-five percent of children witnessed the beatings of their fathers or elder brothers. Forty percent of children were beaten. Nineteen percent of children suffered a host of wide-ranging injuries.
For seven long years, people were forced indoors by a military curfew, lasting from 7:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. Roadblocks were erected everywhere and many streets became cul-de-sacs - Israeli strategic traps to catch escaping stone-throwers. Mounting tension and violence on the streets invaded every home, making people increasingly stressed and vulnerable. In one Gaza Community Mental Health Program (GCMHP) survey, we found that 12 percent of the adult population were suffering from a severe state of anxiety and 8 percent from clinical depression.
Children, too, exhibited symptoms of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, stuttering, bed-wetting, insomnia, aggression, diminished concentration, regressive clinging behavior and more. Those worst affected were the children whose homes were demolished by the Israeli army. Second were the children who had witnessed the beating and humiliation of their fathers.

Concern over Long-Term Effects

For more than two years during the Intifada we were captives to the national mood of defiance, participating as willing players in the illusion that children actively expressing defiance fared better than other children. We were ultimately proven wrong. Whilst, at the time, those active children enjoyed a higher sense of self-esteem than the rest, this factor did little to protect them from the serious and long-term effects of trauma.
Today, with the cessation of daily, armed confrontations - with the virtual disappearance of many of the roadblocks and the lifting of curfews ¬Palestinian children are settling back into a normal school routine, a routine that had been continuously disrupted by the presence of an entrenched occupying army, and by its violent clashes with the local population during the seven long years of the Intifada. In our most recent studies, we discovere
that among those Palestinian children who had actively participated in local celebrations to mark the Israeli army's withdrawal from the majority of Gaza - celebrations which included the raising of the Palestinian flag and the singing of national songs - there was a marked reduction in the level of neurosis. Some of our Palestinian youth, who had been stone-throwing children during the Intifada, and had been empowered by such activities, were reluctant to see lost that sense of national participation that their Intifada role had brought them, and so made the transition to an active role in the local electoral process. They became keen voters, throwing their ballots in the ballot box with the same determination they had used when throwing stones against occupying Israeli soldiers.
Despite these positive changes in the circumstances of these child victims, I continue to be concerned about their mental health, and the long-term effects of the trauma, violence and abuse they have witnessed.

This article was presented as a paper at the conference "The Impact of Armed Conflicts on Children," Belfast, 2-5 February, 1996, organized by Save the Children, Belfast. <