x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

How Israel's war on Gaza breeds anger, grief and courage

With galleries: Children suffer, mothers hold their shattered families together and fathers urge enraged young men to resist the siren call of vengeance. Hugh Naylor reports from Gaza

Malak Basioni sits in the window of her family’s home underneath a giant poster of her brother, Fares,  who was killed by shrapnel as he slept when an Israeli air strike hit a field nearby the family home last November in Beit Hanoun.
Malak Basioni sits in the window of her family’s home underneath a giant poster of her brother, Fares, who was killed by shrapnel as he slept when an Israeli air strike hit a field nearby the family home last November in Beit Hanoun.

JABALIA REFUGEE CAMP, GAZA // Musab Hijazi longs to see Suhaib, his twin brother.

They were best friends, his family said. Inseparable.

The three-year-old does not grasp what happened on the evening of November 19, when an Israeli missile exploded in the living room of the family home in Gaza's Jabalia refugee camp, killing three members of his family: his father, an older brother, and his twin.

"When he sees pictures of his Suhaib, he speaks to him like he's still alive," said his mother, Aamna Hijazi, in her early 40s. "We try to tell him that Suhaib is gone but he doesn't understand."

While he may be too young to comprehend the loss, Musab is not alone in struggling with the aftermath of those eight days of war last November, fought between Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers, which killed 158 Palestinians and six Israelis.

Scores of other children, their families and friends in this besieged territory are still wrestling with the emotional and physical trauma of losing loved ones.

The fighting started after Israel assassinated a Hamas official. Gaza militants fired rockets at Israel, which responded with airstrikes on the territory.

During the holy month of Ramadan - the first since the war ended - coming to terms with such tragedy will be as difficult as ever, they said.

"We have a situation where large numbers of these people are still suffering from severe cases of post-traumatic stress disorder," said Saleh Mohsen, a mental-health counsellor at primary and secondary schools in Gaza. "The victims are in desperate need of psychological intervention, but many either don't seek out such support, or it's just not available to them."

Mr Mohsen holds group-therapy sessions for parents who lost children during the November war. In some cases, he said, they suffer from extended periods of denial.

"I counselled one man who simply didn't believe his son had died," he said. "For months after the war, he would go to the cemetery and try to dig up his son's grave because he believed he was still alive. His family would find him at the cemetery and every time, they would have to explain to him again and again that his son was gone."

Thirty-three children in Gaza were killed during the fighting, according to Defence for Children International Palestine Section, a non-governmental organisation based in Geneva, Switzerland. Most of them were killed by Israeli bombs.

On its website, the organisation says 561 children have been killed - including 352 during Israel's three-week war on Gaza that began in December 2008 - during fighting with Israel in the territory since 2005.

Beset by continuing conflict, an Israeli blockade and grinding poverty, Gaza's 1.7 million residents seldom find respite. Mr Mohsen recalled another one of his patients, a mother, who is still tormented by what she endured during the 2008-2009 war, which killed as many as 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.

After an airstrike caused a fire at her home, she climbed to the upper level of the house with her four-year-old son. In panic, she threw him onto the street below, thinking that would save him from burning to death.

The child suffered a broken arm, but his mother never overcame the guilt of that decision, Mr Mohsen said.

"During our sessions, all she would do is cry and say my words are worthless, that I never had to experience what she experienced," he said.

Back in the Hijazi home, Aamna must now try to raise her six children without her husband, Fouad. He was 46 and worked as a school security guard.

Aamna was lucky to survive the attack, but her injuries were signifcant and left her with serious disabilities. Her right shoulder was broken, her ability to walk has been impaired and after coming out of a ten-day coma, she has suffered from uncontrollable shaking in her right arm, which she said doctors cannot diagnose.

She awoke from her coma in a hospital in Egypt, where medical personnel had taken her for emergency treatment after the airstrike. Her sister-in-law then informed her about the death of Fouad and her two children, Suhaib and her four-year-old, Mohammed.

"When she told me that, for a moment all I wanted to do was die," Aamna said.

But she said she realised she had to remain strong to help raise her two daughters and four sons, including 17-year-old Ashraf. He sometimes pushes his mother in her wheelchair to the market to help with the shopping. He has become a father figure of sorts to his younger siblings.

But like many here, he also seethes with anger. Just as he vowed shortly after the war's end, Ashraf still wants to exact revenge on Israel for the attack on his family.

"I lost my father. I lost my brothers. I have to take care of the family. I am responsible for them," he said, and then added that he wants to join "the resistance."

That is exactly the urge that Ahmed Basioni, 36, wants his 17-year-old son, Nader, to resist. In November, Nader watched as shrapnel from an airstrike cut through the family home in northern Gaza and decapitate Fares, his nine-year-old brother.

Nader also sustained wounds in his leg, which have healed.

But since the attack, he dropped out of school and has been approached by members of militant factions on multiple occasions. "They're trying to recruit Nader because they know his brother is a martyr," Ahmed said.

"But fighting Israel is useless because it's always the normal people like us who die. I don't want my son to die doing something useless."

Ahmed has refused to seek offers of free psychological counselling for Nader and his family. He has instead sealed off Fares' old room, leaving all his belongings, including a birdcage, untouched. Only Ahmed enters the room from time to time, to think, he said.

"It's too painful for the family to go in there," he said.

Sealing one's self off from Gaza's reality is an act of futility, according to Shadi Abu Makthour, 29, an English teacher at a United Nations-run school in the Shijaiya neighbourhood of Gaza City.

He tries to get his class of 12-year-old students to open up about their experiences during the war, even if he acknowledges such discussions may not be as therapeutic as he would like.

"How can we overcome such damage when you know you might be destroyed in the next war?" he said.

This summer, he has worked as an instructor at UN-administered youth camp in the area. On a recent day during the camp, he recalled several of his students, thinking they heard an Israeli helicopter in the distance, fleeing the scene.

"They told me they thought that another war was about to happen," he said. "These children are terrified."

For Aamna and the Hijazi family, they have done their best to rebuild their lives amid the constant threat of war and destruction. Some US$30,000 (Dh110,000) in donations from the community, including financial aid from Hamas, helped them build a new home over the remains of their destroyed one.

But Aamna worries about her family's future. Looking over Musab as he played in their new living room, she said: "I want stability, security for my family. I want them to live like human beings, to have an education.

"That's what any parent wants."

hnaylor@thenational.ae