In an interview in RPN 7 (February 1990), Dr Eyad El Sarraj talked of the `fearless children of the stone' and his plans for the new Gaza Community Mental Health Programme. Four years later, we return to the children of the stone and look at the burdens they will have to carry with them into the future. The article was written shortly before the ending of the Intifada.
Five years into the Intifada, the parties to the conflict are beginning to negotiate a peaceful settlement. But after peace prevails, when every nation remembers its heroes who sacrificed their lives, the Palestinian children who were in the forefront of the Intifada should be seen as the real peacemakers.
Images of the children of the Infitada throwing stones are the subject of many posters, postcards, articles and books. But for all that, very little insight has been brought to bear on the children's motives in assuming such a role. At the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, we decided to talk with the children themselves and to observe them in action on the street and at home. In addition, many children were brought to the programme by their families for treatment of the effects of trauma. Finally we conducted studies in the field, employing psychological surveys to understand more about their role, the extent of trauma and its effects.
The language of the Occupation
The most valid description of Palestinian children is that they are angry and defiant. They are also tense and vigilant. For many of them, throwing stones is a way of transferring that anger onto the Israeli soldiers who are the target. These children have learned the language and the meaning of the Occupation. If every child has not been humiliated by the Israeli soldiers or told that his or her life is worthless, the environment sends this message loudly and clearly.
Sami, a twelve year-old boy, was brought to the Programme by his mother after he tried to kill himself by starting a fire. His legs were badly scarred and he looked hostile, angry and depressed:
I wanted to kill myself because my father did not bring me a new pair of trousers for the feast. He said he did not have any money. Why should he have children then if he could not have a job?
His brother, who was handicapped, died a year ago. His mother believes that Sami had changed since then:
My brother, Sameer, died because he was cold. He was wet when we found him dead. It was raining all night and it was dripping on him from the leaking roof. He could not move himself because he was paralysed.
Children are well aware of the differences between living conditions in their dirty camps and in the newly built Israeli settlements. These differences tell them that Jewish children living in the settlements deserve big, clean playgrounds and swimming pools, while their refugee camps have open sewer systems and rubbish piled high at every street corner. The buildings and the streets of the settlements are clean and the grass is watered even when there is a water shortage in the camps. Palestinian children observe settlers zooming by in fast, well-protected cars that project an aura of power and security, in contrast to their own feelings of vulnerability.
The language of the Occupation sends the message that life is not worth living, that children born in the settlements are the treasured children while children born in the Palestinian camps, villages or towns are despised. This environment drives home the message that the Palestinians are born to be the hewers of wood and drawers of water both for the settlers and for the Israeli economy. The children witness their fathers' and older brothers' humiliation as they stand in line at the `slave market', hoping to be offered one of the few jobs available building yet another Israeli settlement.
Time and time again the message is sent to Palestinian children that they are dirty because they are unworthy, that they are poor because their parents are weak and helpless. In a Gaza Community Mental Health Programme survey it was found that 85% of the children's houses had been raided by Israeli soldiers, mostly at night, and that 56% had witnessed the beating and humiliation of their fathers. Such experiences leave their mark on children's perceptions of themselves and the world around them. `If my father could not protect himself', children wonder, `how on earth is he going to protect me?'
The inevitable reaction is a mixture of fear, frustration, helplessness, anger and, perhaps most tragically, rejection of the father. Children sometimes find themselves identifying with Israeli soldiers as symbols of power. At the very least, they are driven out of their homes to look for heros to replace their fathers who failed the test.
The making of a hero
The streets are the natural playgrounds for the children of Gaza. To be a child in Gaza is to be enticed by its streets, incited by the graffiti on every wall and irritated by the Israeli soldiers patrolling on foot or in their jeeps through your own territory. A gathering crowd of activists preparing for a confrontation with the soldiers fills the air with apprehension and excitement. Now it is not a game any more. The toys are real jeeps and the enemy is real soldiers. This is where you can avenge your father's humiliation. This is what you can do to conquer your fear. This is where you will join the heroes, perhaps even becoming one yourself.
Throwing stones becomes a way of rejecting the definition of self imposed by the Occupier. In the psychological sense, throwing stones is a form of recognising and identifying the problem, a very crucial step in the making of the Intifada child. Through this behaviour, children decide both to assert themselves and to exercise their right to a free and a better life. Marwan, a 13 year old boy from Gaza, describes this process:
I went home after school one day to find a big crowd in my uncle's house. I was told that my seventeen year old cousin was shot dead by the Israelis. Since then I began to ask and to understand more about the Intifada. Now if they do not come, I go to look for them. We have to fight them and free our country... If I only could get a gun, I would shoot them all.
Throwing stones became essentially a form of therapy, not only for Palestinian children but also for the entire Palestinian nation. Years of helplessness and frustration gave way to active resistance and defiance. The collective sense of injured pride and humiliation was transformed overnight into a state of self-respect. Internal division recriminations and communal violence were replaced by solidarity, unity and cohesion. All became one against a common enemy.
For a rare moment in the history of the conflict, the Palestinians tasted victory when they effectively took control of their lives by the act of rebellion against the Occupation. Indeed, the Palestinian morale was such that it allowed them to enter the peace talks as equals.
Victories, however, do not come cheap. The Palestinians have to endure yet more pain. Their collective memory is still alive with the dismemberment of Palestine, their mass exodus into bitter and cold exile, the Suez War, the October War, the invasion of Lebanon and life after military occupation. Now the Intifada promises salvation but accompanied by pain. Palestinians wish to see the pain as that of the birth of a new life. But it is hard. For every act of rebellion or defiance, the Israelis react with even more oppression and harshness. The children are particularly hard hit. From the shoot-to-kill policy to the breaking bones policy, to the night raids and beating, the children have to face the new challenge of a new time. They simply cannot afford the luxury of childhood and have to assume the worries of adulthood.
The `children of the stone' are not made of stone. They suffer pain and fear. The extent of their exposure to traumatic events is horrific even at the statistical level. According to the Programme's survey of 2,779 children, 92.5% had been exposed to tear gas; 42% had been beaten; 55% had witnessed beating; 4.5% had had their bones broken or other severe injuries; 85% had been exposed to night raids; and 19% had been detained for short periods of time.
Issa is a seven year old boy from Bureij refugee camp. His mother said that he had completely changed in the previous nine months. He complains of headaches, wets his bed at night and is aggressive towards his sisters. She said that Issa finds it difficult to sleep and frequently wakes up in the night shaking with terror. Issa was normal until the night when soldiers burst into the house and beat his father and elder brother. Issa says:
I am always afraid of the soldiers. They beat my friends at school and my teachers many times. I run away when I see them coming. I want to beat them but they are very strong and they have guns. They kill.
What will become of you, the children of the stone? What kind of students are you and will you ever go to university? What kind of parents will you be, warm and happy, or neurotic and abusive? What teachers will we have, what lawyers, what leaders?
It is difficult to imagine the future of these children, even in peace,
since they have never tasted peace themselves. It is certain, however,
that many will continue to harbour the pain, the guilt and the anger. It
is also certain that some will turn against their own children and against
themselves. Some will also turn against the world, the world which
preached decency, justice and democracy, only to stand by and watch the
slaughtering of justice, democracy, decency and the children. And if the
children of the stone sacrificed themselves, will this sacrifice bring
peace and salvation after all?
Dr Eyad El Sarraj is Director of the Gaza Community Mental Health
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