Between the kidnapping and killing of the three Israeli teenagers and the brutal murder of a Palestinian teenager, youths have become the faces of war as violence between Israel and Gaza escalates. But although the tragic stories of these individuals may be the most visible, they aren’t the only young people finding their lives changed by war.
As missiles continue to fall on Israel and the IDF begins its ground invasion of Gaza, the climate of fear and panic is taking a drastic toll on children on both sides of the conflict. That’s not to mention their parents, who struggle to explain the situation without distorting children’s view of the conflict or exacerbating kids’ anxiety.
Longtime Moment contributor Ilene Prusher, a mother of two and veteran journalist covering the war for Haaretz and TIME, took time after hosting the show “So Much to Say” on TLV1 Radio to talk to Moment about the challenges facing children and their parents in a battlezone.—Rachel E. Gross
How are your children holding up?
Mine are holding up just fine because they’re young enough that we’re not telling them there’s a war on. They’re really small. My son will be four in September and my daughter is two and a half. They now know the word azaka which is Hebrew for siren, and that it means they have to get to a shelter. We have a shelter in the basement of our building and we’ve been down there a couple of times. We put some kids’ books down there and make it into almost a game. If they were 7 or 8 I might start getting into the nuance of it but at their age it’s too much to absorb and understand.
What is your biggest concern as a parent?
My biggest fear would be my child coming out of a summer like this and thinking: they want to kill us. You actually hear kids their age talking about that, even before this war. Things they end up hearing and being told around Memorial Day and Independence Day back in May. So I’m very wary of that. I don’t want them getting these black and white ideas, like “they’re Arabs who hate us” or that kind of thing. We’re actually sending my son to a bilingual preschool in the fall that’s Arab-Jewish—half in Arabic, half in Hebrew.
Do your kids ever ask questions?
They like the honor of going outside of our apartment entrance and bringing in the newspaper. My son increasingly takes it out of the plastic, points to the picture on the front page with something war-related on the cover, and asks, what’s this, what does this mean? I’m still trying to figure out myself what am I supposed to tell him.
Why should kids know what’s going on?
It’s important for kids to have a way to deal with fear. There’s a video of kids in south Israel singing about how not to get traumatized. It’s how you hear the sirens and have to go to the shelter, and your heart is pounding, but then it’s ok and you come out. Now this song is becoming nationalized. It’s so smart, but to me it’s also really sad.
(Note: “The Code Red (Tzeva Adom) Song,” penned by Sderot teacher Shachar Bar in 2008, recently went viral. It is meant to teach children how to handle the stress of responding to sirens in as little as 15 seconds.)
In your reporting, what kinds of things do you hear children saying?
Depending on the age of the kids, you can find kids as young as 9 or 10 who have very specific articulated political views—sometimes about peace, sometimes mimicking things they’ve heard on the news, like “we have to root out Hamas and destroy them” or “we have to make peace.” They start to mimic the things they overhear. For me, I don’t turn on the TV when my children are up, because the evening news is bound to have images of violence, military, rockets, etc. For just a little longer let’s put it off. Maybe if they were 5 or 6 I would be less protective.
How do you see children making sense of the experience?
Last summer I interviewed a bunch of kids at a community center in Sderot and at Kibbutz Mefalsim, both near the Gaza border. I teach journalism, so I was there with a couple of my journalism students. Kids were almost competing to tell their best bomb shelter stories, like “the scariest time was when I was in the pool when there was a siren and I didn’t know if I would make it on time.” Or, “the time I had to spend my whole birthday in the bomb shelter.” It’s almost a situation of kids having war stories, stories of when they felt that they had a close call or when it was very scary for them. That’s one way that kids cope with it: they talk about it.
Nickelodeon recently included your reporting for Haaretz in a piece called “Kids Get Caught in the Crossfire in the Middle East.” What was that piece about?
They quoted me talking to a girl who lives in Sderot whose mother sent her to stay with her aunt in Ashkelon because Sdeort is constantly under rocket fire every time there’s a flare-up, but her thinking was that things would be okay in Ashkelon and she could get her daughter out of the warzone to try to have a normal summer. But now Ashkelon is getting completely battered with rockets, they’re hitting it all the time. (Some rockets fall, some get knocked out by the Iron Dome.) The girl, Roni, who is 12, said both places are scary, both places have rockets falling on them. In other words, she didn’t have anywhere to go where she really felt safe. The mother was describing that her daughter seemed to be developing this phobia of, like, “I’m going to be in the shower when it goes off and I wont be able to get to a shelter on time.” And that was exactly what happened the day we interviewed her.
What about parents of older children?
I think parents of slightly older kids have it much harder. Because they certainly can’t hide what’s happening from their kids and they don’t want to, but you don’t want them to get stressed out and obsessed with the possibility of a lethal rocket landing on your house. I know a lot of parents who are struggling with not wanting to build up a sense of hatred and resentment. With older kids you don’t want to hide reality from them; it is a very unsettling time and you don’t want to pretend that isn’t the case. On parents’ online forums on Facebook, for example, I’ve seen a lot of parents posting that they’ve seen an increase in behavioral problems in the last two weeks–kids acting out more, being more aggressive toward others, etc. I think it all has an influence, and you can’t escape it entirely.