What children talk about when they talk about the Israel-Hamas conflict

Israeli and Palestinian parents living under fire struggle to answer their children's questions about why the rockets and air strikes are back after a two-year hiatus.

Mohammed Salem/Reuters
Palestinian children, who fled their family homes in the northern border town of Beit Lahiya, sleep as they stay at a United Nations-run school in Gaza City on July 14, 2014. On Sunday, the Israeli military had warned residents of Beit Lahiya to leave or risk their lives when, after nightfall, it planned to intensify air strikes against suspected Palestinian rocket sites among civilian homes.

Ravit Dagmi Lowe winces as loud thumps echo over her lush garden. Her daughter Romi clutches her arm. It’s noon in this humid seaside city, located just five miles from the Gaza Strip, and the air-raid sirens have already gone off eight times.

The Iron Dome system has intercepted all but four of 65 rockets fired here, but 11-year-old Romi is still scared. When the sirens go off, she has 30 seconds to find shelter. This is the third Gaza conflict she’s lived through.

“Why doesn’t the [Israeli] army just go and blow up all of Gaza?” Romi asked recently.

“How would you feel if the army came and blew up your school?” Ms. Lowe says she responded. “I tell them … their mothers are trying to calm them down as well. We know it’s not the people of Gaza that are enemies. They’re held hostage just like all of us here.”

As militants from Gaza fire more than 100 rockets a day across Israel’s border, the rest of the territory’s 1.7 million inhabitants feel the brunt when Israel retaliates. Ghadir Nabil’s toddler cries every time there is an Israeli air strike nearby.

In the past week, Israel has carried out more than 1,400 strikes across Gaza, killing at least 175 Palestinians, many of them women and children. 

While leaders in Israel, Gaza, and elsewhere stick to rigid narratives, parents like Ms. Lowe and Ms. Nabil have a more delicate task. They struggle to be honest and still preserve their children’s innocence and sense of security.

“His tears tear my heart into pieces,” says Nabil, who frequently pops balloons with a needle in front of her son so he gets used to the sound of explosions. “When we hear a big explosion, I tell him dad’s big balloon on the rooftop popped. He smiles right after I tell him this.” 

‘What did we do to them?’

“Why the Jews are bombing our homes? What did we to do them? Will they bomb our house? Our house is facing the sea – will the gunboats that shoot at Gaza all the time invade the beach and kill us?”

These are the questions Raed Lafi, a journalist and father of six in Gaza City, hears from his kids.

“I never lied to them,” he says. “I told them we are an occupied people [and that] it always happens that wars and confrontations erupt between occupiers and occupied people.”

Israeli kids, too, are asking why people on the other side are sending rockets, and what they want.

“I tell him that they don’t want us to be here. They don’t think this country belongs to the people of Israel. So since we came, they always try to scare us and to make us decide to leave,” says Chava Leah Tzohar, a mother of four from Yeruham, south of Beersheva. When her 7-year-old suggested that maybe there’s a country that could give Israelis a little piece of land to settle, she explained that God promised them this land and would take care of them. “Because we believe in God, always we say that he helps us and he will keep us here.”

But if God loves us, why is he doing this? her son asked. “That’s harder to answer,” she says.

Mr. Lafi’s kids also grapple with questions about where God is in all of this. He overheard this conversation:

Safad, age 10: Are they going to bomb our home?

Seba, age 5: Our home is protected.

… Qais, age 7, to Seba: Even if they hit our house, you will be a martyr and will go to paradise and you can ask God to bring you grapes and toys.

Kossay, age 12: She does not have to ask, she gets everything she wants without asking.

Struggling to understand

There has been very little interaction between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza since Israel withdrew from the territory in 2005. Only a trickle of Palestinian workers and medical patients have entered Israel and Israeli citizens are banned from entering Gaza.

“My kids wanted to know if there are kids there [in Gaza] that want to be friends with them. They say, ‘Maybe we’ll talk to the kids … to help them overcome the terrorists,’ ” says Revital Steinberg, a school counselor in Ashkelon who explained to her kids that it’s not civilians in Gaza who are responsible for the rockets. “It’s naïve, but it’s cute.”

Older Israeli kids have more sophisticated questions.

Stacy Fassberg of Shoham was watching a news report about the situation in Gaza with her 14-year-old son when he turned to her and asked, “How could they have no shelters?”

“My response was, ‘They just weren’t able to build them,’” says Ms. Fassberg, who says she tries not to apportion blame. “I don’t want to raise children thinking all Arabs are bad people.” 

From Gangnam dances to a lady named Olla

Parents have various techniques for soothing their children. Tal Rotem in Beersheva invents a Gangnam Style dance every time he and his three kids go in the shelter. Yifat Ofri, a mother of four in Ashkelon, created a persona named Olla after the sound of the air-raid siren and tells her kids to get to the shelter before Olla stops singing; last month, she published a book about Olla, which has been selling rapidly.

Reem Ahmed, a government employee from Gaza City, says she can't hide from her four children, aged 8 and younger, the many neighbors killed and injured. But she and her husband read the Quran and tell their kids stories to try to distract them from the war.

The most common calming tactic in Gaza is to pretend the noise is fireworks – and sometimes it’s the children doing the calming.

“[My 4-year-old son] once asked me not to cry saying, ‘It’s just fireworks, Mama,’” says Bassant Mohammed, now pregnant with her second child.

For many Palestinian parents in Gaza, a feeling of helplessness is more difficult than the actual violence. “Sometimes [kids’] questions cause more pain than the Israeli airstrikes,” says Umm Islam, a mother from Jabaliyya.

Back in Ashkelon, Romi’s mother says her heart goes out to such mothers.

“I pray for their safety and their children’s safety,” says Lowe. “I pray for them and wish for them the best of everything. Just to be a mom enjoying her child.”

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