"All Palestinian children in the West Bank and Gaza are exposed in some form to increased psychological stress," said Pierre Poupard, UNICEF Special Representative in the West Bank and Gaza, speaking in Geneva. "Our assessment of available data suggests that the lives, behaviour and attitudes of Palestinian children have changed dramatically since the onset of the current conflict."
Poupard said UNICEF had no data on the psychological impact of the conflict on children in Israel, but said that Israeli children are also very likely to be suffering from emotional stress due to the conflict.
Citing studies and surveys carried out separately by academic institutions, NGOs and the Palestinian Authority, UNICEF reported that 75 per cent of Palestinian adults think children are experiencing greater emotional problems and changes in behaviour compared with a year ago. Sleep-related problems are the most common form of psychological distress among children reporting problems. These include nightmares, bed-wetting, insomnia, and irregular sleeping patterns.
"Fear is also common," said Poupard. "Fear of darkness, fear of sleeping alone, leaving the house, strangers, loud noises and sudden movements. Children find it difficult to concentrate. Some are more anxious and irritable. Children are experiencing psychosomatic symptoms, such as headaches, stomach cramps and skin problems. And others are withdrawing from friends and family, rebelling or becoming aggressive themselves."
Studies show that children in refugee camps, poor children and girls between the ages of 5 and 14 are among the most vulnerable. Among very young children (up to age 5) the most common signs of distress are crying and clinging to parents. For children ages 6-12, aggression and rebellion are more common signs of fear and anxiety. Older children, ages 13-18, are more likely to suffer from risk-taking behaviour, a sense of helplessness, frustration and withdrawal.
The increase in psychological distress is directly linked to the current conflict, UNICEF reported. Repeated exposure to the sound of shooting and shelling is the major cause of psychological problems for 73% of affected children, according to the studies. Watching violent scenes on television plays a role in 46% of cases. And 27% of the reported cases of distress are linked to direct exposure to the conflict.
Poupard said that the bulk of UNICEF's emergency programme in the West Bank and Gaza has focused on helping Palestinian children and their families deal with the stress, fear, and anxiety generated by a year of conflict. UNICEF has supported the training of more than 2,000 kindergarten teachers, 550 school counsellors, university students, NGO workers and others in identifying and helping children cope with social and psychological distress. It has also supported the development of a self-help book for parents that has been distributed to 100,000 households, as well as the production of television spots on coping with psychological distress.
Poupard reiterated UNICEF's call for Israeli authorities to ensure that children under the age of 18 years of age are not targeted in the conflict.
He also reiterated UNICEF's call for the Palestinian Authority to expand measures to discourage those under 18 from participating in any violent action. This includes efforts by the Ministry of Education to keep children in school and Ministry of Social Affairs in helping children to express themselves, understand their situation and develop constructive ways to address their problems.
In Geneva, Poupard called on donors and development agencies to intensify their support in the West Bank and Gaza so young people have more opportunities for recreational activities, summer camps, social and cultural events and meaningful, non-violent ways to support their community during this difficult time.
UNICEF noted that 194 children under the age of 18 have been killed since the conflict escalated one year ago. This includes 166 Palestinian children, 27 Israeli children and one foreigner. According to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society and the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, more than 7,000 Palestinian and more than 50 Israeli children have been injured.
"Children are paying a heavy and disproportionate price," Poupard said. "More must be done to ensure that all the region's children are protected both from the direct and indirect impacts of this tragic conflict."