The two-week bombardment of Gaza last month took a heavy toll on the children of a trauma treatment programme that was funded by European Union humanitarian aid and Irish tax money. Eleven children receiving treatment under the programme were killed, several of them siblings or cousins, and some not long after they took part in sessions to practice techniques such as releasing tension and imagining a safe space.
"Most of these children were with their families inside their homes," said Maysa Saleh over a WhatsApp call from Gaza. Saleh is an education officer with the Better Learning Programme, which is run by the Norwegian Refugee Council.
“They were making good progress to overcome trauma and on their way to recovery. But unfortunately some of them lost their lives, and for others the trauma became worse.”
The deaths illustrate the impact of repeated wars on Gaza's young population, about half of whom are children, and who cannot leave due to travel blockades by Israel and neighbouring Egypt.
'The students in Gaza suffer from many bad events. It's an accumulative violent situation we live in here in Gaza, so they need our support'
Gaza’s children will typically have lived through several periods of bombardment – there have been four major Israeli offensives and perennial smaller clashes since 2006 – and the small and densely packed population oftwo million means that people will frequently know someone who was killed.
Trauma interferes with children’s ability to learn. The aim of the Better Learning Programme, which received €1.6 million in EU humanitarian aid in the latest tranche, was to teach meditative techniques and build support structures involving counsellors, teachers and parents around 116 schools in Gaza.
“The students in Gaza suffer from many bad events. It’s an accumulative violent situation we live in here in Gaza, so they need our support. They usually feel anger, feel fear, they don’t have complete wellbeing,” Saleh explained. “We train the students to practice these techniques to help themselves in emergency situations. Talk to your mind that you are safe. Look at your body, feel your body. You are fine, no injuries, no wounds; you are fine, you can get over this.”
The latest conflict broke out on May 10th. Amid rising tensions over the attempted expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem and the violent storming of the al-Aqsa Mosque by Israeli police, militant group Hamas launched rockets towards Israel in attacks that would ultimately kill 10 Israeli civilians and residents, including two children, according to the United Nations.
Israel responded with airstrikes on Gaza that killed 256 people and wounded 1,900, according to Palestinian authorities, while displacing 72,000, according to a UN estimate. Roughly a quarter of the dead were children.
The first student of the Better Learning Programme died on May 11th. Lina Iyad Sharir (15) was killed along with her parents when their home in Gaza City’s Al-Manara neighbourhood was hit with a missile fired by an Israeli warplane, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council. Lina’s younger sister Mina (2) suffered severe burns and died a week later in Gaza’s main hospital, al-Shifa.
The following night took another Better Learning Programme student: Hala Hussein al-Rifi (13) was killed when an airstrike hit the Salha residential building in Gaza City’s Tal Al-Hawa neighbourhood.
The greatest toll on the students of the Better Learning Programme was to come in a bombardment of two parallel streets in central Gaza over two days in mid-May. The attacks on Al-Wehda Street and Egyptian Embassy Street began at about 1am on Sunday, May 16th, when at least 25 bombs from Israeli warplanes levelled "several residential buildings", according to the Palestine office of Defense for Children International.
A student of the Better Learning Programme, Dana Riad Hasan Ishkantna (9), was killed along with her brothers Yahya (4) and Zain (2). Two more sisters, Mira Rami al-Ifranji (11) and Dina (15), who were both in the trauma programme, were killed as well.
Two four-storey homes belonging to the al-Qawlaq family, who owned a small supermarket, were levelled. Some 20 members of the extended family were killed.
They included three sisters who had been in the Better Learning Programme: Rula (5), Yara (9), and Hala (12). In a message passed to The Irish Times, Hala was remembered by her teacher, Ahlam Al Shanti, as an “excellent student” who loved art classes. Their cousin Hana (14), remembered as a “diligent student” who liked sport and Arabic classes, was killed in the same strikes.
The bombardment also struck a five-storey building owned by the Abu al-Aufs. The extended family had gathered after some had been evacuated from their own homes elsewhere; 12 were killed. “They had to evacuate their homes because it was not safe there, so they came and stayed with each other, to support each other,” Saleh said.
With the closure of schools due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the trauma programme had established WhatsApp groups to continue counselling
The dead included Tala Ayman Abu al-Auf (13), a student of the programme who loved maths, along with her brother Tawfeeq (17). They were the children of Dr Ayman Abu al-Auf, the head of internal medicine at Gaza City’s main al-Shifa hospital, who also oversaw its response to the Covid-19 pandemic. He was also killed. “His death is a catastrophe,” a fellow doctor, Dr Haya Agha, told the BBC.
On the following evening of May 17th, the Abu Dayer family were eating a meal in a garden when planes returned to bomb the seven-storey Ghazi Shawa building on Al-Wehda Street. Another programme student, Rafeef Murshed Abu Dayer, was hit with shrapnel, and died a week short of her 11th birthday. Seven other members of her family including two brothers were injured, and her uncle Zeyad was killed.
With the closure of schools due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the trauma programme had established WhatsApp groups to continue counselling. Rafeef was an active participant in video calls, and had been drawing a picture of her safe space in the hours before she was killed, Saleh recalled. “She always told her teacher that she is practicing tension release techniques, and she’s always ‘talking to mind’ and practicing safe place daily, as we recommend for them.”
The final student from the Better Learning Programme was killed on May 19th, two days short of the ceasefire. At around 8pm, Dima Sa'd Ali Asaliya (10) ventured out of her house in Jabalia in the northern Gaza Strip when an Israeli drone fired a missile on the street. She was hit by shrapnel and died.
During the bombardment, the Israeli Defence Force issued a statement saying militant group Hamas “deliberately and systematically places military targets within the civilian population”. The organisation defended its strikes and said it places high importance on reducing harm to civilians and “where feasible, uses various tools, including advance warnings, roof knocking, street knocking, target clearing operations and a variety of professional calculations”.
Following the ceasefire, the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, said that Hamas’ rocket strikes were clearly against international law, and announced an international investigation into whether Israel had committed war crimes during its offensive.
“Israeli attacks resulted in extensive civilian deaths and injuries,” Bachelet said, noting that homes, medical facilities, NGOs and media offices had been hit. “Despite Israel’s claims that many of these buildings were hosting armed groups or being used for military purposes, we have not seen evidence in this regard... If found to be indiscriminate and disproportionate, such attacks might constitute war crimes.”