- The Washington Times - Friday, January 23, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

The latest reports that the number of Gaza’s casualties surpasses 1,000 is truly disturbing. Tragically, Gaza’s children account for more than one-third of that total — innocent victims caught in the crossfire. We are especially concerned about those who may have survived but who have suffered physical injury and, more disturbing, invisible wounds that will haunt them for years to come.

The psychological impact of Gaza’s violence reaches beyond its borders and has yet to manifest itself fully. One of our staff in the West Bank reported that his 3-year-old son cries in anger “What did the children do to deserve being killed like that?” when he watches TV and sees Gazan children not much older than himself with gaping, bloody wounds. His bewilderment and anger are warning signs for future peace efforts.

We welcome Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s promise to exert every effort to support the work of Israelis and Palestinians who seek peace and reconciliation. We must remember that peacemaking is more than official negotiations and signing ceremonies. It’s about what happens on the ground, too. Peace and reconciliation comes through individuals, families and communities building trust and the belief in a better future for the next generation.

The international community has a responsibility to help broker a cease-fire and revive peace efforts. But humanitarian programs like ANERA and other nongovernmental organizations will play a key role as well help the traumatized and terrorized men, women and children in Gaza and embittered Palestinian communities of the West Bank cope with distress caused by mounting poverty, political uncertainty, isolation and violence.

Now that the fighting in Gaza has ended, children — the most vulnerable and impressionable segment of the population will need more psychosocial help than ever. They will need to work past the horrors of what they have witnessed to see a future for themselves.

Gaza’s children make up the majority of its 1.5 million-strong population. They are the building blocks of the future. Child health and education has been an special part of ANERA’s 40 years of service in the region. Our after-school programs, creative health projects and other programs have brought relief to Palestinian communities in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon. For more than 20 years in Gaza we focused on providing medical supplies and services, fortified milk for pre-schoolers and scholarships for deaf children and the underprivileged.

Two years ago we partnered with the nongovernment Community Training and Crisis Management Center to meet the increasing psychosocial needs of Palestinian children there. Even before the current crisis, resident psychologists there warned that nearly all of Gaza’s children were exhibiting symptoms like anxiety, depression, not to mention phobias, distress and anger management issues.

ANERA’s education aid program in Gaza has provided comprehensive psychosocial support and education opportunities to more than 7,000 boys and girls, ages 6 to 17. They attended after-school activities in some 80 community support centers. Through art, animation, music and dance troubled children can find an outlet for their fears and frustrations. We worked at strengthening their problem-solving skills and anger management and putting a smile back on their faces. We also provided special training to social workers and Gaza community health volunteers who are able to track the progress as the symptoms of daily suffering subside. ANERA is already gearing up to reactivate our psychosocial programs as soon as feasible.

Once the rubble is cleared, the international community needs to invest urgently in repairing health services to prevent the spread of debilitating disease. But we need to tend to the invisible wounds, too. We cannot ignore these invisible wounds that will only fester if not treated. We need to rebuild schools and after-school programs to get children off the streets and into a safe, well-structured learning environment.

Gaza is a scene of destroyed homes and broken dreams. Sadly, it makes another generation of Palestinians damaged and dependent on others at a time when they want to take control of their own destiny. We want Gaza’s children to be able to face their uncertain future with dignity, good health and emotional well-being.

Bill Corcoran is president and chief executive officer of ANERA, which has provided relief and development assistance to Palestinian refugees for more than 40 years. ANERA has been working in Gaza since 1985.

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