By Isla Binnie
LONDON (AlertNet) - Civilians in Gaza still struggle to sleep, eat and go to school, two months after the week of rocket fire and air strikes that hit the Palestinian territory late last year, aid agencies and health workers say.
The number of people being treated for psychological trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder doubled after the conflict which killed 170 Palestinians and six Israelis in November, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
The most recent crisis in a dispute which has remained unresolved since the Islamist group Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007, sowed lasting fear among children in particular, according to Unicef.
Three-year-old Mohammed Saleh has been clinging to his parents since the November bombardment, becoming catatonic at night if he hears any sounds, his father says.
"He's screaming, screaming, screaming and his body becomes as hard as wood," Mohammed's father said, in quotes provided to AlertNet by UNRWA.
"He's bedwetting, he covers his ears, he flinches whenever he hears a door bang, he cannot sleep for more than a full hour," said the boy’s father, who lives in Jabalia in northern Gaza. "During the war he was very attached to me and his mother, now he's holding on to us constantly."
In the two months before the hostilities in November, no children were being treated for psychological trauma. Afterwards there was a huge demand for such help, and now 42 percent of those receiving treatment are under the age of nine, UNRWA says.
"Kids are always vulnerable … but it is very unusual to see this kind of surge after a short period of time," Akihiro Seita, director of UNRWA's health programme in the region, told AlertNet from Jordan.
Children in Gaza had trouble sleeping, cried more, and looked stunned or dazed after the conflict, in an already volatile environment where children are exposed to violence in their everyday lives, according to Unicef, which carried out a rapid psychosocial evaluation four days after the ceasefire.
These symptoms were highest among children from Gaza City and North Gaza, two areas where, along with the southern city of Khan Younis, children witnessed the most violence.
The rate of psychological trauma has increased among residents of all ages, dozens of whom had to be treated for shock.
"Since the war we've lost our appetite, we don't eat as usual. I used to take care of myself and dress well but not any longer ... I have permanent anxieties and fears. I no longer sleep," Amani Bassam el Kelani, 24, said in quotes provided to AlertNet by UNRWA.
PHYSICAL AND MENTAL SCARS
In the four days after the war, Unicef found that 14 percent of the children surveyed had been physically injured.
David Ligneau, head of mission in the Palestinian Territories for Handicap International, emphasised the importance of psychological as well as physical treatment for injured children and their families, giving the example of a girl whose hand had been amputated.
"It was important to ensure that the family can cope with this situation, to help the family to work with their daughter and to ensure that this girl has access to mental health services," Ligneau told AlertNet from Jerusalem.
Both sides declared victory on Nov. 21 after Egypt brokered a fragile peace deal. Israel withdrew troops that had been poised to invade the enclave.
"The physical type of war is over but the impact, the effect of war, is never over," said Seita. "I'm afraid that some of the kids will never forget this, and their lives will never be the same."