The Israel-Gaza war risks creating a lost generation

Violence takes an immediate toll on children, but intergenerational trauma also plays out in a more pernicious way

A Palestinian girl holds up a drawing as children join a protest on Tuesday at refugee camps near Beirut against the Gaza war. It is an indictment of the adult world that children must show such resilience. AFP
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Seven-year-old Oday Obied is like many other boys of his age. A slight and bespectacled youngster who likes football and reading, his childish enthusiasm for Batman – “because he can fly, he is strong and helps people” – is balanced by a more grown-up aspiration for the future: to become a surgeon.

However, the odds are stacked against Oday and thousands more children like him. Not because of any fault on their part but simply because they have the misfortune to live in Gaza, a territory described by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres this week as becoming a “graveyard for children”.

Years of chronic hardship caused by broken politics in the Palestinian territory and an Israeli blockade of the enclave and its 2.3 million people had already damaged the life chances of thousands of children. The Israeli air strikes that began last month have cost the lives of over 10,000 Palestinians – including more than 4,000 minors. The images of shaking children covered in dust and blood are an obscenity, and the young people who survive this appalling bloodshed will have years of struggle ahead of them as they try to live with the psychological trauma of being subjected to a full-blown military onslaught.

Gaza's children share their stories and dreams

Gaza's children share their stories and dreams

Just as the Israeli children who were abducted or saw their loved ones killed in the brutal and indiscriminate Hamas attack of October 7 will need years of treatment to try to heal the scars of such ordeals, thousands of Palestinian children will need support to deal with the mental and emotional trauma of being bombed, seeing their homes reduced to rubble or losing loved ones – in some cases their entire families.

This violence takes an immediate toll on children, but it also plays out in a more pernicious way. Research into what has been called intergenerational trauma is uncovering some disturbing findings about the way in which mental and emotional damage affects not only those who directly experience traumatic events, but their children and grandchildren too.

The American Psychiatric Association says the descendants of a person who has experienced a terrifying event can “show adverse emotional and behavioural reactions to the event that are similar to those of the person himself or herself”. According to the APA, this distress can manifest in many ways including, but not limited to, depression, difficulty with relationships, difficulty in regulating aggression and extreme reactivity to stress.

Research from other conflict zones, such as Bosnia and Northern Ireland, has also made worrying discoveries about how trauma can be passed down through the generations, leading not only to individual problems but societal ones, such as substance abuse and increased mental health issues.

Treatment of such conditions is not easy, even in the best circumstances. It can take years of specialist counselling to help those suffering from trauma. Even then some wounds are too deep to be healed fully. Given the ruinous state that Gaza’s healthcare system has been reduced to, it is difficult to see how the thousands of children terrified by air strikes or displaced from their homes can be helped effectively.

In the longer run, a new generation of Palestinian and Israeli leaders may emerge who can find a way to peace, respecting the rights of both sides. However, creating a lost generation of traumatised and damaged citizens risks perpetuating the cycle of violence.

Children can be resilient, and it is an indictment of the adult world that children must show such strength. Speaking to The National, Oday demonstrated this resilience in the very matter-of-fact way in which he described packing to move to a tent with his family after being displaced: “I only managed to get two T-shirts. I wanted to bring my toys with me, my backpack and my notebooks so I can play, draw and study.”

Oday, and many other children in this conflict still have their dreams and ambitions for a better future. It is up to adults to find a way out of this catastrophe that is killing thousands of blameless children, and scarring many more for life.

Published: November 08, 2023, 3:00 AM