By Catherine Weibel and Monica Awad

The escalating violence in Gaza and Israel threatens devastating physical harm and mental distress for children on all sides, the effects of which can last a lifetime as their sense of security is undermined.

GAZA, 14 July 2014 – In Gaza City’s al-Shifa hospital, two 5-year-old children lie in bed. Noureldin and his cousin Kinan were both seriously injured by shrapnel after an air strike flattened the family’s home on Tuesday night. Noureldin’s mother had just put the boys to sleep in a bedroom when the missile struck, killing her and her husband, reportedly a militant, as well as Kinan’s father, sister and grandmother.

In total, six members of the family, aged 21 to 62, were killed, and five seriously injured, as they had tea in the yard.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2014-0901/El Baba

Kinan, 5, was injured during an Israeli air strike. Here, he is surrounded by relatives and medical staff in the Intensive Care Unit at al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City, in the southern Gaza Strip.

“Packed with patients”

Noureldin has had abdominal surgery; a piece of shrapnel is still lodged in his head. Kinan has shrapnel in his hand and has a broken leg. “They are awake, but neither of them has uttered a word since the air strike,” another grandmother says. She adds that she does not know how to tell them that their parents are dead.

As the children rest, a flow of dead and injured stream into the Intensive Care Unit, surrounded by tearful relatives

“The Unit is so packed with patients that doctors have to treat some on the ground, or to send the injured back home early, including children, due to a lack of hospital beds,” says UNICEF Health Specialist in Gaza Younis Awadallah. “This puts them at risk.”

The escalating violence in Gaza and Israel threatens devastating physical harm and mental distress for children on all sides, the effects of which can last a lifetime as their sense of security is undermined. Already, between 8 and 13 July, at least 35 Palestinian children between 1 and 17 years old were reported killed in air strikes on Gaza, and at least 296 injured. The coastal enclave is under closure, making it difficult for civilians to flee. In Israel, rocket attacks from Gaza threaten the lives of Israeli children, as well.

“He knew what was going to happen”

Nine-year-old Mohammed Jaber remembers how he took his pocket money and went out with his 5-year-old sister Ghina, as the long summer day of fasting came to an end, in the month of Ramadan. “My parents try to keep me indoors, but I was bored, so we went to buy jellybeans and chips,” he says. Once on the street, in the densely populated al-Bureij refugee camp, he heard that the neighbours had received a call warning of an air strike. Mohammed rushed back home. There are no shelters in Gaza, so his parents and their six children took cover in a bedroom.

“Mohammed remembers the last war two years ago. He knew what was going to happen,” his mother Mariam explains, recalling how the child, white with fear, ran and picked up a pillow to cover his face and ears. “I thought he was going to suffocate himself,” she says. Suddenly, the deafening explosion sent pieces of shrapnel and glass flying through the room. “All my children started screaming. I managed to calm them down, but after that they were in shock; they would not speak.

“Since then, Mohammed has started bedwetting again, and my 5-year-old daughter Ghina keeps saying, ‘Mama, people will bomb our house.’ Whenever her father goes out, she clings to him. She thinks he will not come back if she lets him go.” Mariam does not know what to tell her young children. “I cannot tell them the truth, that there is no safe place, and we cannot leave.”

Reaching families at home and in hospital

To help children and parents cope with fear, anxiety and stress, five UNICEF-supported emergency psychosocial teams have started visiting homes and hospitals. Operated by the Palestinian Centre for Democracy and Conflict Resolution (PCDCR), UNICEF’s partner since 2002, they provide psychosocial first aid.

“These teams were on the ground from the second day of the escalation, often in perilous conditions,” says UNICEF Child Protection officer in Gaza Safa Nasr.

On Tuesday, four counselors visited twelve children whose house was damaged in an air strike in Rafah. As they sat with them, a phone call warned that the house was about to be targeted again; all fled minutes before a second air strike.

Since the onset of hostilities, the teams have already carried out 262 visits, reaching 302 children. Many more visits are to come.