GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Since the state of emergency was announced March 5 in the occupied Palestinian territories, the Palestinian government has imposed a series of measures, including a lockdown, in order to contain the coronavirus outbreak. These include shutting down the border crossings and educational facilities, and preventing the movement of individuals in the governorates, villages and refugee camps.
The government required that the citizens stay confined at home. This preventive measure, although of significant importance in the fight against the novel virus, has been harmful to many children who have been subject to violence during the pandemic.
Palestinian Minister of Social Development Ahmad Majdalani said May 13 that his ministry provided counseling and psychological services to 610 children who have been subjected to abuse in the West Bank in the past two months.
Majdalani said in a press release that the children and their families were contacted by phone, and that the families received instructions on how to deal with the children.
According to Majdalani, 47.5% of the abused children are ages 6-12, while those between the age of 16 and 18 represent 13.5% of the cases.
While the ministry has the names of these children, it has kept the identity of the abused children and their families confidential.
Al-Monitor obtained the contact details of families from a social worker at the General Directorate for Children in Hebron and reached out to them. Many families did not want to speak about the challenges they are facing with their children, but some did.
Zeinab Ibrahim, a mother of four from Nablus, in the northern West Bank, told Al-Monitor that she found herself in a very difficult situation a few weeks after the state of emergency was declared and everyone was told to stay at home.
She said, “I found myself solely in charge of four children who cannot leave the house and of protecting them from the cruelty of their father who had to quit his job in Israel because the border crossings are closed.”
Raghed, Ibrahim’s nine-year-old daughter, said, “The coronavirus has turned the house into a prison. I cannot play outside with my friends and my father beats me when I ask for anything. My mom always tries to protect me from him. There was this time when he broke my finger because I asked him for pocket money, which he did not have. I cried my heart out."
Rafi Salami, 12, from Hebron, in the southern West Bank, told Al-Monitor that he had to run away from his mother to his uncle’s house, located a few blocks away, despite the lockdown. He recounted that the long hours he spends on videogames have angered his mother. “I can't find anything to do at home other than that. Schools and playgrounds are closed. What am I supposed to do?”
Haneen Zahra, 16, said that her father does not let her talk to her friends on any video chat app. “Every time he sees me video calling them, he ruthlessly beats me,” she told Al-Monitor. “Once he hit me while I was on the phone with my friends. It was very embarrassing.”
She added, “I only wanted to spend some time and have fun with the girls. I feel like I can’t breathe anymore at home, and I do not know when this confinement is going to end. I really hope to wake up tomorrow to the news that the coronavirus has vanished and I can go back to school and see my friends."
Asem Khamis, director of the family and childhood directorate general at the Ministry of Social Development, said that 59.2% of the child abuse cases they handled were located in the cities, 34.5% in the villages and 6.3% in the refugee camps.
Khamis told Al-Monitor that the relatively low number of reported cases in the camps is likely attributed to the presence of popular committees or the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, which are already dealing with issues related to children.
Commenting on the forms of abuse, he said that most cases include negligence and mistreatment, followed by sexual and economic exploitation, and sexual abuse. He noted that most of these abuses were domestic.
Khamis explained that the confinement measures preventing the children from moving freely and being in contact with others, as well as the social distancing measures, have increased tensions within the family and resulted in a larger number of domestic violence cases.
Ayed Abu Eqtaish, accountability program director at the Palestinian branch of Defense for Children International, warned that the number of cases published by the ministry is likely to increase in light of the lockdown and economic hardship the Palestinian families have experienced.
Abu Eqtaish told Al-Monitor that the coronavirus and the state of emergency in the West Bank do not justify violence and abuse of children, and noted that it is the state’s responsibility to protect the children from violence, whether it is domestic or not, through governmental measures or laws.
He called on the Palestinian Authority to revisit the Palestinian Child Law and impose severe sanctions against the perpetrators of violence against children.
Article 5 of the Child Law of 2012 stipulates that whoever neglects a child in his care shall be sentenced from one to three months in prison. The law also requires that the authorities protect the children from any threat to their safety or physical or mental health, or that would put them at risk of delinquency.
Children under the age of 18 make up nearly 45% of the total population in the Palestinian territories, namely 42% in the West Bank and 48% in the Gaza Strip, according to April figures by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.
Haneen Zidan, a social and psychological specialist, said that although good, the ministry’s services are insufficient.
She told Al-Monitor that there are cases of domestic violence against children that remain unreported, and that based on that the number is higher and is likely to rise. She said violence against children is “venting anger on the most vulnerable segments.”
Zidan said that the parents need to understand their children’s behavior, refrain from treating them as "prisoners" and prepare a daily routine and program that would help them release the energy they have.
She noted that it is very important to explain to the children what the state of emergency is about in order for them to go back to their normal routine once it is over, “so as to protect them from any gap or shock when they get back to performing daily routines.”