Emad el-Din Abu Khattab, 10, has his cousin pinned against a concrete wall. "Talk! Tell me where it is," he yells, his hand on the fake trigger of a toy machine gun constructed from water pipes that is pressed against the younger boy's chest. "I don't know where it is," says Mo'men Abu Khattab, 6. Emad pulls back on a wire connected to the end of the gun by a web of rubber bands, simulating the lock and load sound with a loud click. He grins as he says, "If you don't tell me, I'll blow you up."
On a hot afternoon in the narrow alleys of Beach Camp, one of the Gaza Strip's poorest refugee neighborhoods, dozens of children are out playing war games. "We're pretending to be a martyr group called Ayman Abu Taha," Emad explains, saying the name belonged to a neighbor killed in a family feud. A hundred meters away, Mohammed, 7, and Wael, 9, are playing "Arabs and Jews" with a few rocks and a jagged piece of wood.
The interiors of the children's homes are dark, crowded and hot beneath the plastic- and metal-corrugated roofs held in place by cinder blocks. The electricity has been out for hours; the water, salty and untreated, isn't running as well. It's another day in Gaza, their parents say: What else can the children do?
Last month, British Prime Minister David Cameron described the Gaza Strip as a prison camp as it festered under a blockade by Israel and Egypt. He appealed to the Israeli government to open its border crossings immediately to allow the flow of people, aid and goods. The remarks sparked a backlash in Israel and the British Jewish community, with critics pointing to the Strip's overflowing beaches, bustling markets and a new mall. Prisons don't have shopping malls, they argued.
Gaza's residents will concede that there is no hunger crisis in the Strip. Residents do love the beach, and the store shelves are stocked. But if you're focused on starvation, they say, you're probably missing the point. To them, the word prison speaks more to the effect that years of conflict and political and economic isolation have had on the Gaza psyche. "We are talking about continuous stress and ongoing trauma," says Hasan Zeyada, a psychologist at the Gaza Community Mental Health Program (GCMHP), the territory's main psychological treatment and research NGO. "It's not one incident, but all of the time. We are at a continuous level of high stress and human-rights violations and traumas through Israeli invasions and war."
Indeed, the effects of subsisting in the Gaza environment, observers say, are troubling. Levels of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are high, the GCMHP says, even a year and a half after the war with Israel that left 1,400 Palestinians dead. A recent report by the organization said two-thirds of the population still suffered symptoms of PTSD. Many Gazan children exhibit anxiety, hyperactivity, aggression and bed-wetting, Zeyada adds, behaviors that the GCMHP trains parents and teachers on how to deal with. And the GCMHP's Gaza City Center one of three in the Strip administers clinical psychological care to 9,000 advanced patients alone.
"People are hopeless," says Mo Darabaih, 32, a Chicago cop and Palestinian American, who returned to Gaza last week for the first time in nine years to find his once prosperous family listless and broke. "You feel depressed as soon as you talk to anyone." The faint sound of a helicopter is audible as Darabaih talks. "You see this Apache," he says, pointing to the sky. "This is weird to me. To them, they're so used to it, it doesn't matter."
The images of war are everywhere in Gaza. If not in the immediate damage of an air strike, they are in murals of violence and hardship on the territories' dilapidated walls, in the torn martyr posters of young men with their weapons, plastered to the concrete, and in the graffiti that urges resistance. One of the first things a visitor sees upon entering the Gaza Strip from Egypt through the Rafah border crossing is a mural of the misery that the people say has enveloped them. In one picture, a woman in a headscarf is strangled by a giant, anonymous fist. Tears fly out from her eyes. In another, a man is blindfolded and encircled by barbed wire. "Welcome to Palestine," a nearby sign reads.
Basel El Maqosui, a local artist, admits that he has never painted anything happy. The 57, mostly black-and-white paintings that he produced in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion in 2008 are filled with the abstract shapes of corpses and helicopters. Recently, he began to splash more color across his canvasses, but many of the images rockets and wilted flowers carry an older theme. "I still feel that I live in war," he says.
Perhaps most damaging, psychologists and residents say, is the feeling that there is no way out, no way to change Gaza's future. Attempts to reconcile Islamist Hamas, which rules Gaza, and its rival Western-backed Fatah, which it ousted in 2007 and which controls the West Bank, have long stalled. And peace with Israel seems entirely intangible to most, undesirable to many.
The frustration may be particularly acute for young people, who in their voracious consumption of international news and social media like Facebook or "Face" as many there call it yearn for opportunities to learn and explore beyond their shattered 140-sq.-mi. (360 sq km) slice of land. "Leaving is the dream," says Layla Abdallah, 21, an accounting student who recently found an escape route through a forthcoming marriage to a man in the United Arab Emirates whom she has never met. "Nothing here can change."
"My cousins, nieces and nephews a lot of people are begging me to get them into the U.S. and help them start a new life," says Darabaih, the Chicago policeman. He is married to an American and has two kids. "I explained to them that it's very hard to do that. They all just want to get out of Gaza. Over here, they don't have a purpose in life. They don't have a reason to get up in the morning. They're caged in."
There is little optimism even after the loosening of the blockade after the Turkish aid-flotilla fiasco. "Nothing has changed," says Osman al-Rayis, a shopkeeper. "What are they bringing in? Cleaning supplies, fruit." Palestinians point out that the banned list still includes many construction materials that citizens of the war-ravaged territory say they need to repair homes and commercial infrastructure. No goods and relatively few people are flowing out. Most employment when available still exists through the Hamas government or U.N. Relief and Works Agency jobs-creation programs. "The people have a feeling of helplessness and powerlessness," says Zeyada. "You can imagine what it's like to be a father who is physically healthy, has the skills and knowledge to work and the motivation to work, but he can't find a job."
Domestic violence and drug abuse, particularly of painkillers and sedatives, are two of the consequences, he adds. "You feel frustrated and angry. You may express your frustration and anger verbally or physically toward your wife and children," he says. Those feelings were amplified during the Israeli invasion of December 2008 and January 2009. During the chaos, there was a sense that nowhere in Gaza was safe, he says. "You cannot protect yourself and your children, and you are perceived by your children as helpless and powerless fathers and mothers."
At the GCMHP, mental-health practitioners worry about the long-term psychological effects of a life in Gaza. "The children in the first intifadeh threw stones and participated in demonstrations," says Zeyada. "Now those children have become adults. They used weapons in the second intifadeh. They became more aggressive and fanatical."
Yasser Arafat Abu Khattab, 5, was not yet alive when the second intifadeh began in Jerusalem in 2000. He was born a year after the original Yasser Arafat, the iconic Palestinian leader for whom he was named, died. But he's old enough to remember the war last year. As the older kids stand in a narrow alley of Beach Camp, telling a visitor what they know about captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and the Israeli "murderers," Yasser Arafat shoves other children, tries to climb a water pipe, and then brings down a line of clothing. "Yasser!" a woman's voice yells from inside the house. The boy giggles and darts inside, past the hanging sheet that serves as a door. A few minutes later, he re-emerges, spraying the other kids with imaginary machine-gun fire, squealing with glee.
"You can imagine what the future of Gaza will be, if Gaza continues to live under the same conditions," says Zeyada, sitting at the GCMHP offices. "The new generation will be even more fanatical, more extreme. We're talking about the children of the second intifadeh, when they become adults, how they will act."