As I write this, the war of the missiles continues in the skies over Israel and Gaza. IDF troops are massing on the border. Mediation efforts are underway in Cairo. By the time you read this, the fighting may have intensified into a ground war, or it may have fizzled out into another uneasy peace.
But for now, while the fighting continues, the news media engage in the familiar spectacle of twinning. Under the rules of twinning, the conflict is portrayed as a contest between two opposing sides, each inflicting damage on the other and each suffering casualties in a symmetry of belligerence. The titles of two videos now up on CNN.com illustrate the phenomenon: “Comparing Israel’s and Hamas’ Firepower” and “Life Now for an Israeli and a Gazan.” One story for one side, another story for the other.
The rules of twinning, as with any competition, require comparison and scorekeeping. How many rockets have been launched from Gaza? How many Israeli air strikes have hit targets there? How many Gazans are dead? How many Israelis?
One of the main fictions of twinning is that it considers only physical casualties: how many have been killed, how many have been maimed. By that calculus, Hamas has been laughably ineffective over the years. Before the recent escalation in violence, they had fired over 8,000 missiles at Israel since its withdrawal from Gaza. Under the rules of twinning, those thousands of missiles hardly count, because very few led to Israeli deaths or amputations.
But the children of Israel know too well that every single one of those missiles and mortar rounds inflicted casualties. Every single one.
The casualties are psychological. According to a report by IRIN, a service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, long before the recent escalation in violence, the relentless rocket attacks from Gaza were exacting an ominous toll on Israeli children.
In the town Sderot, close to the Gazan border, 75% of children aged 4 – 18 suffer from post traumatic stress, including sleeping disorders and severe anxiety. Symptons include bed-wetting, nightmares, and fear of being alone. “Very few have been killed or injured by the attacks,” according to Hannah Tal, therapist and social worker from the Resilience Centre that has treated some 400 members of the Sha’ar HaNegev community “The trauma results from the apprehension of not knowing where or when there will be an attack.”
Parents in the United States and other safe areas may find it difficult to imagine what it is like to raise children in the Israeli communities near Gaza. When missiles are launched, the children have 15 seconds to run for cover. School playgrounds and bus stops have reinforced structures to protect against rocket fire. One of saddest sights in Israel is the image of heavy concrete structures, their walls brightly decorated with images of Winnie the Pooh and other childhood favorites, in school playgrounds. These structures save lives but they cannot save psyches.
The rocket fire from Gaza has been timed for the early morning when children head to school. During a visit in 2011 by IRIN to Sderot on a school day, over 10 rockets landed in or near the city between 7 am and 8:30am. Each rocket triggered a public warning siren, giving the children 15 seconds to run for cover.
Sometimes the damage is more than psychological. Last year, Hamas militants fired a Kornet anti-tank missile at an Israeli school bus. The sole passenger on board, 16-year-old boy Daniel Viflic, was killed.
The trauma Israeli children suffer is not limited to school time. A high school student told IRIN that her family had not slept in their separate bedrooms for six months. “We all sleep in one room on the bottom floor, which is considered safe,” the teenager said. The stress on family life is hard to imagine. When attacks are frequent, families stay in secure room for hours at a time, reading stories to their children, and trying to explain as best they can why they mustn’t leave.
This is what Israeli children have lived through since the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza. The psychological damage does not figure in the metrics of twinning utilized by the media in their coverage of the current fighting. But the damage is there. And the children of Israel who sustain it will, in due course, become the adults of Israel, fighting its battles, running its government, and making its policy. Much as they might like to do so, they will not be capable of shedding the traumas and experiences that shaped their childhood.