Palestinian Youth and the Psychological Impact of Violence

"This is not human."

It's hard not to agree with Suha Abu Khdeir when she says that.

It's hard not to agree with the mother of a fifteen-year-old boy as she looks at the bloodied and bruised face of her young son after having watched video of Israeli police officials violently beating him to the floor, arresting him, and then later fining him.

It's hard not to agree with this distraught parent as she challenges us to accept a reality in which this exposure -- and often subjection -- to violence is something very familiar and real for the over one million children living in what is modern-day Palestine.

But what is often difficult for us to grasp is what this actually means: What is it like for children living in these places where gunfire and rocket attacks aren't video game fantasies but real life challenges? What is it like living in a world where humiliating military checkpoints are regular stops on your walk to school? What is it like being a kid living in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip?

In 2011, British researcher Lydia Dimitry of Imperial College London set out to answer those questions. After collecting data and reviewing over 3,700 research papers related to the health of children living in areas of armed conflict in the Middle East, Dimitry published some startling findings:

  • 99 percent of Palestinian children and adolescents had their homes shelled.
  • 61 percent of Palestinian children and adolescents had a close relative who had been killed.
  • 71 percent of Palestinian children and adolescents had a friend who had been killed.
  • 37 percent of Palestinian children and adolescents had seen a family member be arrested.
  • 99 percent of Palestinian children and adolescents had watched mutilated bodies and wounded people on television.

Unsurprisingly, a 2008 study in the European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry Journal suggested that up to 70 percent of children in the Gaza Strip may be suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). In comparison, the NIH (National Institute of Health) estimated in 2009 that 20 percent of American veterans returning from the war in Iraq and 11 percent of veterans returning from the war in Afghanistan suffer from PTSD.

With a childhood diagnosis of PTSD, it is common to see children developing many symptoms in common with what an adult with PTSD may experience including: emotional numbness, avoidance of people, frequent frightening flashbacks to traumatic events, having problems concentrating or holding interest in normal life activities, constantly worrying about dying or being hurt, and a range of other, often debilitating, symptoms.

Additionally, research shows when children are exposed early on to violence, especially armed conflict, their traumatic experiences can also be positively correlated with symptoms of ADHD, Depression, Anxiety, Behavioral Problems, Emotional Disorders, and various other forms of Risk-Taking Behaviors.

In essence, the struggles of the youth of Palestine are limited not only to the beating of Tariq Abu Khdeir or the murder of his second cousin, Muhammad Abu Khdeir. Their struggles are worse than that, much worse. They are deep, they are psychological, and sadly they are widespread.

In the coming weeks, we can only hope that justice will be brought to those who attacked Palestinian teenagers Tariq Abu Khdeir and Muhammad Abu Khdeir as well as those who kidnapped and killed Israeli teenagers Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah. But although the stories of all five young men have been tragic and heartbreaking, it is in recognizing the cruel world in which they had to grow up that we see the greater tragedy. It is in seeing what those they left behind still face that we recognize an even deeper pain.

For these children, the effect of the decades long conflict in Palestine is not simply death and destruction. For them, it is something far worse than that -- it is suffering. And as the mother of Tariq Abu Khdeir inspected the face of the boy whose bruises now represent both the physical and the psychological struggles of so many, she had a simple message.

"No one should be beat up this badly. No one under any circumstance -- for any reason. I don't care what it is. I don't care what they do. This is not human."

Like all mothers, she was right.