There have been many questions bouncing around in the media this week. Why is Israel at war? Why are there so many Hamas men dead? Why are Hamas firing rockets at Israel? A war of resistance, some say. Israel is holding a siege against Gaza. Palestinians are starving and suffering.
And who is to blame?
Israel of course. At least that is the conclusion that emerges within the headlines of AP and Reuters news reports, European news media, and countless Internet blogs on the current fighting.
For those who seek objective answers to those questions, the unfolding tragedy of Sderot and the western Negev must be taken into account.
There has been a war of terror on Sderot from more than eight years now. During this time period, an estimated 8,000-10,000 Palestinian rockets have been fired at Sderot and the western Negev from the Gaza Strip. There was not one serious long-term military response from Israel to the rocket attacks during that time besides the closing of crossings and checkpoints.
In the meantime, hundreds of Israelis homes and properties have been destroyed, over 700 Israelis wounded, and thousands psychologically traumatized by Palestinian rocket fire. Periodically, schools in Sderot and the western Negev have been forced to close, as normal life cruelly transforms into a marathon of 15 seconds, (the number of seconds one has to escape to shelter when the Tzeva Adom, or Red Color alert is set off by an impending Palestinian rocket).
Sderot and western Negev residents have been forced to sit and endure Palestinian rocket terror to the point that there is now a generation of eight year old Sderot children who are showing signs of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as early as age three.
In a recent report in the major Israeli newspaper, Ma'ariv, Yaron Sasson writes of children in Sderot being born into a period of siren alerts, or Tzeva Adoms and the sound of Kassam explosions. These sounds of war have become part of the psychological makeup of Sderot children. It is not surprising then that psychological research conducted among Sderot residents has produced some very disturbing findings.
According to research done by Sderot's Hosen Center, a treatment center that offers support and counseling to Sderot residents during times of emergency, there is a major problem appearing in young Sderot children, the generation born into Kassams.
Clinical psychologists working at the center discovered that many Sderot children are not developing speaking skills at a rate appropriate to their age. A normal child learns to speak around the age of one. But many children in Sderot have not even begun to speak by the age of three or even four. Those who are able to speak, stutter and cannot complete words.
Dalia Yosef, director of the Sderot Hosen Center, explains that the constant rocket fire upon Sderot has created a state of stress and panic that has dramatically impacted the development of young Sderot children.
Yosef and the clinical psychologists who work with her, counsel Sderot children from the ages of one to 18, offering treatment for a wide variety of issues.
"It is important to note," says Yosef, "that these Sderot children have been born into a reality of constant rocket fire. The world, as it appears to them, is unsafe and scary, full of insecurity and chaos. Their sense of security has been shattered by the continuous rocket attacks."
"These children develop symptoms of PTSD early on, suffering from sleeping disorders, nightmares and anxiety attacks. Many experience regression, going back to wetting their beds," says Yosef.
Those children whose parents suffer from signs of post traumatic stress disorder, have even more complicated issues. According to Yosef, children of parents diagnosed with PTSD sense that their parents cannot protect them. "These kids' problems are even more severe than kids whose parents are more psychologically stable," says Youssef. In Sderot, 30% of adults have been diagnosed with PTSD.
Yosef explains that a young child hears the rapid breathing of his parent, when the Tzeva Adom sound and understands that his parent is frightened. "Once the child understands this, then he perceives that the world is unsafe and that his parent is unable to properly protect him," adds Yosef. "The parent feels threatened and so does the child. Later on, this feeling of insecurity and stress affects the child in areas like speech, hindering normal speech development."
Younger children go back to the bottle, to the pacifier, and have extreme difficulty separating from the parents. "Kids are scared to go to the bathroom or to the shower by themselves, because of the fear of a rocket strike," says Yosef. "The situation has created unhealthy relationships within the family unit. Children as old as 12 sleep with their parents."
Even during the recent ceasefire or days where Kassams don't fall regularly on Sderot, the trauma and stress continue because people continue to anticipate rocket attacks. "Only a permanent long term quiet will help these children and their parents recover," says Yosef. "The moment there is a siren alert and a rocket explosion, all the progress we have made in the treatment is destroyed."
The Sderot Hosen Center offers treatment for children and parents together. "We give parents the tools and skills need to maintain a sense of calm in situations of terror," explains Yosef. "Because parents are the authority figures in the family, we focus on them and try to identify ways in which they can be more relaxed in this tense environment."
Livnat Shaubi, a lifelong resident of Sderot and the oldest in a family of 11 children, recently spent an entire day with her younger siblings, helping them find ways to cope with the Hamas war on southern Israel. After spending four days at home, exhausting Lego, board games, and playing balls, the Shaubi boy--Hananel, David, and Yehuda, ages 5, 7 and 11, respectively, created Kassam rockets from plastic bottles they found lying in the house.
"Like other Sderot kids, my mom cannot allow my younger siblings to play outside during these periods of rocket attacks. "My brothers are cooped up all day and therefore these art projects, an important outlet for their creativity, simply reflects the reality around them" says Shaubi
Shaubi told Sderot Media Center that the first words her five-year-old brother, Hananel learned to say, along with Daddy and Mommy, were 'Tzeva Adom' (Red Color, the name for the siren alert).
"These kids know war," she adds. "Soon it will be the children in Be'er Sheva, Ashkelon and Ashdod, who will join them."
And this is exactly why Israel is currently engaged in this war--to prevent the tragedy of Sderot from spreading to one million other Israelis who are currently experiencing for their first time the impact of Palestinian rocket fire in some of Israel's major cities. Israel's children and Gaza's children deserve a quiet future, one with normal childhood experiences, where threats in the form of Palestinian rockets are finally laid to rest.