It has been four years — almost to the day — since Sama Abu Meghasib witnessed the killing of her uncle Omar.
On 9 January 2009, the family’s home in Abuelaljeen, a rural area in the central Gaza Strip, was bombed by Israel. Eighteen-year-old Omar died; Sama, then aged five, “saw him stained in blood,” according to her mother, Madeline.
An Israeli warplane flew low over their heads when Madeline tried to evacuate Sama and two siblings from the scene.
“I was wondering how I run could away with the children, while the warplane was firing very close to the four of us,” Madeline said. “There were large white pillars of smoke behind us — right in the house and next to it.”
Approximately ten months after Operation Cast Lead — Israel’s three-week assault on Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009 — Madeline noticed that Sama had “some sort of paralysis” in an arm and a leg. Initially, she was taken to a local clinic but was transferred to the al-Nasser Hospital for Children. While there, Sama went into a coma.
Sama was then referred by the Gaza health ministry to the Schneider children’s hospital in Petach Tikva, near Tel Aviv. An assessment signed by a Gaza-based specialist said there was a “high possibility” that Sama had contracted ADEM (acute disseminated encephalmoyelitis), a brain disease.
Madeline has no doubt that the condition is linked to the white smoke that she saw. Israel is known to have used white phosphorous — a substance regarded as “extremely toxic” by the US Environmental Protection Agency — during Cast Lead.
Madeline herself contracted asthma after the attack. She said that a doctor at the Schneider hospital indicated to her family that white phosphorous was probably the cause of Sama’s condition but was unable to confirm this matter.
Sama appeared to make a recovery during her two weeks in Schneider hospital, regaining consciousness and the ability to walk. Her return home was “a remarkable moment,” Madeline said.
Yet the attack has had a lasting impact: Sama’s development has been stunted. Now aged nine, she acts like a much younger child.
“Sama is no longer enrolled at school as her behavior is uncontrollable,” Madeline said. “At the beginning, after she was treated at the Israeli hospital, we got her back to school for a period of two months.”
However, according to Madeline, “Her hyperactivity increased and she was unable to concentrate on anything. She used also to say words very slowly like a two-year-old. According to her doctor, Sama needs our attention all the time. We need to watch her closely. Sometimes, she goes out of the house and enters the houses of our neighbors.”
Um Hussam, Sama’s grandmother and a retired nurse, said: “Sama comes over to me sometimes and starts messing up my things in my room. She starts grabbing whatever drugs she sees. My poor granddaughter needs a lots of support and mental therapy, I believe.”
Sama smiled widely when she spoke to The Electronic Intifada. She named sisi sisi — a hand-clapping game normally played by much younger children — as her favorite game. Asked if she has visited the zoo lately, Sama said, “Yes, I did, with my mom and sitto [grandmother].” But Madeline explained that the visit took place a few years ago, before Sama was first hospitalized.
Operation Cast Lead had a devastating effect on Gaza’s most vulnerable inhabitants. A total of 353 children were killed; a further 860 children were injured.
Six months after the operation, the Institute of Community and Public Health at Birzeit University in the West Bank published the findings of a survey of more than 3,000 families in Gaza. The survey found that one-third of the families questioned reported that at least one family member had an increased fear of death because of Cast Lead. Around half of all respondents said that at least one family member suffered from such problems as nightmares, insomnia and fear of darkness (“Gaza’s Children: Falling Behind,” Medical Aid for Palestinians, 20 June 2012 [PDF]).
Gaza came under sustained attack by Israel once again in November 2012. And once again, the effects on children were acute. Although Gaza may not be the main item on news bulletins this week, its people live with the ongoing consequences of the recent attacks and those of Cast Lead four years ago.
Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.
Editor’s Note: This story was changed to correct the name of Sama’s uncle, which was incorrect in an earlier version.