Kids in the Hell

The Conflict's Forgotten Victims

JAFFA—They've started wetting their beds again. They cling to their mothers and refuse to play outside. They wake up screaming in the night—their dreams filled with gruesome images of exploding brains and bellies oozing blood and guts.

Few people want to talk about what this conflict is doing to the Israeli and Palestinian kids who don't get killed or maimed. But it's clear that the ever present specter of death is traumatizing thousands of little ones on both sides.

"We are seeing a lot of children suffering from regression—bed-wetting, insisting on sleeping in their parents' bed," said Dr. Naama Kushnir-Barash, a prominent Tel Aviv psychologist. "Some have terrible nightmares. Others are depressed. They lose their appetites and just watch TV all day.

"Many have become more aggressive and more restless," she added. "Many say they want to leave Israel. This whole thing is making the kids very anxious."

Studies done by Palestinian clinical psychologists at the Gaza Community Mental Health Program and at Birzeit University's Institute of Community and Public Health in the West Bank have found almost identical symptoms among Palestinian children.

You shouldn't be surprised. For 22 months, these kids have been exposed to an endless stream of suicide bombings, blazing helicopter gunships, rumbling tanks, and skulking terrorists. And what they don't eyewitness is graphically portrayed on television and Internet sites.

"I feel scared all the time," said Shir, a 12-year-old Israeli who lives in a quiet Tel Aviv neighborhood. "I don't go to places that are public, like the mall, and I ask Mom and my friends not to go either. Most of the time, I just stay in the house."

Yona lives in Jerusalem, where suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks are all too frequent. She says her two sons, 14 and 18, are "wired and ready to snap."

"They talk all the time about friends' relatives who have gotten blown up," she said. "Teenagers shouldn't be going to so many funerals."

Yona is worried because her kids are not as open and friendly as they used to be.

"They are more suspicious," she said. "My 14-year-old can't get on a bus without searching all the faces for a shady person, a terrorist.

"I grew up here, through several wars," she said. "But those wars always seemed far away . . . and they ended. My kids don't see an end. They walk around saying things like 'Live today, die tomorrow.'

"The saddest thing is, my older son is starting to really hate Arabs," she said. "When I hear him talk, it turns my stomach. But I understand that being angry and hating the Arabs is easier than dealing with it in another way."

Yarden Dankner, a 44-year-old artist, decided to find a better way to help her nine-year-old son Elai weather the bloodshed.

"After Passover in April, I felt frustrated and helpless about the situation and our policies," she said. "We live on the coast and there is a lot of helicopter traffic over our house. The noise made me think of mothers and children on the other side and also about Israeli children who know what is going on but are confused and have no way to express their feelings."

So Yarden teamed up with her friend Michael Pundak-Sagie and e-mailed thousands of Israelis about Project Child-to-Child.

"We are Israeli parents and children who have decided to send gift boxes to Palestinian children to demonstrate our belief that war is not the right path and our hope that together, as individuals, we can find a route to peace," the e-mail said.

After talking to UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees, they asked that the gift cartons include cereal, instant soup, sweets, juice, peanut butter, dried fruits, a toothbrush and toothpaste, soap, baby wipes, and a small children's plaything such as crayons or a coloring book.

"Please add a personal note or drawing from a child to a child along with a blank card or paper and a self-addressed envelope for a reply," they asked, promising to translate all the letters into Arabic.

"The idea was small and perhaps naive in the face of the military activities and the suicide bombings," Yarden shrugged. "But I think that no matter how bad the situation seems, we have to keep talking to each other. We hope that small actions can create a change—for both sides.

"We weren't feeling patronizing, and we weren't trying to assuage guilt," she added. "I do relief work in the territories and found that Jews and Israelis have been incredibly demonized by the children. It is so sad.

"Some people think we can achieve peace through war," she said, "but I think there are better ways."

Within a few weeks, more than 600 gift boxes were on their way to refugee camps.

"I am nine going on 10," said a letter from Uriah. "At school I study Arabic so that one day we can talk to each other. I also learn juggling with three balls and how to ride a unicycle. I think war is not the way of the world and I hope there will be peace. The grown-ups make a lot of foolish mistakes. If children were to decide about what goes on in the world it would be a much better place."

Yotam addressed his letter "To a Palestinian child."

"I am giving you these things because I don't think you are as bad as some people in Israel believe you are. I hope that someday there will be peace between our two peoples," he wrote.

Itamar, 14, had future plans. "I love football and lately I have been forming my political views," his letter said. "I hope that one day when you have a country and I have a country in peace, we can play football together. I hope you see from this letter that we are not all bad."

Tamar was matter-of-fact: "My name is Tamar and I want to tell you a bit about myself. I am eight years old in the second grade. I have a mom, a dad, a brother and a sister. I really want peace but I think that Arafat and Sharon are not sincere. They are men of war and that is why we don't have peace. I want to be friends and that's why I told you about myself. I wish you happiness, health and fitness."

"The packages are still pouring in," Yarden said. "A lot of the kids had never met an Arab child and it really excited them that they might be in touch with kids on the other side. A lot of the kids put their telephone numbers in the letters."

Azizi Fawzi, 33, works at the Tul Karem refugee camp and distributed the first batch of packages.

"The kids felt very happy not just for the gifts but because Israeli children are remembering them in this situation," he said by telephone from the West Bank.

Azizi has a huge bundle of responses from refugee children but doesn't know when he will be able to pass them along. Right now it is just too dangerous.

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