Eight days of Israeli missile strikes on Gaza killed a lot of children — and terrified many more. Yet in this war zone, the task of healing psychological wounds is handled a little differently. The children of Small Hands Kindergarten are barely more than toddlers. Led by their teachers to a public square, they wave toy guns at imaginary Israeli jets overhead and stomp on a poster bearing the Star of David. Yet this kindergarten isn't run by Hamas — it's run by supporters of Fatah. These young children are part of a chorus of voices calling for an end to the two rival factions who rule Gaza and the West Bank respectively.
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And now let's move a little bit to the east. The ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip seems to be holding for now, which means both sides can turn their attention to the most innocent victims of the conflict: children. A lot of psychological damage gets done to small children when missiles and rockets fly. And in Gaza, they also suffered a big physical toll. Palestinian officials say at least 40 children were killed, and 10 times that number were injured.
NPR's Philip Reeves is in Gaza, where he stumbled into this scene
(SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD)
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Maysara el-Sheikh is the mother of a little boy.
MAYSARA EL-SHEIKH: Ayman.
EL-SHEIKH: Ayman, five years.
REEVES: Maysara runs a kindergarten. Five-year-old Ayman goes there. Ayman and his classmates have just lived through eight days of intense Israeli missile strikes. An experience like that obviously traumatizes little kids. Maysara says she's trying to help heal Ayman and the others from her kindergarten, so she's brought them here to a square in Gaza City.
The little boys and girls line up and open proceedings with verses from the Quran. Some are cloaked in Palestinian flags. A lot are wearing ordinary clothes. Ayman and seven other tiny boys are dressed in green military uniforms. Each is carrying a toy machine gun or a toy pistol. They point their guns in the air and pretend to shoot imaginary Israeli war planes.
Israel's missile strikes filled Gaza with deafening explosions night and day and brought buildings crashing down. The blasts blew out the windows of Maysara's kindergarten. She says Ayman and his siblings were frightened and wanted to know what was going on.
EL-SHEIKH: (Through translator) At first, I told them a party was going on, and those sounds were just fireworks.
REEVES: Her story fell apart when her kids saw the TV. They saw footage of the missiles landing and dead kids about their own age.
EL-SHEIKH: (Through translator) I explained to them after that, that what's happening is a war, and Israeli aggression. They wanted to know why.
REEVES: The kindergarten kids on the square are being put through their paces by an instructor, Samer Abu el Karayer. He encourages them to chant Palestine, Palestine. He tells them to stamp their feet. Karayer introduces a poster with Israel's Star of David scrawled on it with a blue crayon. He places this on the ground. Step on it, step on it, he cries. Someone sets fire to the poster, and the tiny boy soldiers stamp on the flames.
I asked Karayer how he responds to accusations that an event like this looks like brainwashing. No, we're not training them, Karayer replies. It's therapy.
SAMER ABU EL KARAYER: (Through translator) If adults get scared, how do you think the kids feel? We want to get them to let out their emotions.
REEVES: Karayer says a psychiatric expert's advised the kindergarten to use these methods. They're intended to raise the children's morale.
KARAYER: (Speaking foreign language)
REEVES: They're wearing the traditional Palestinian uniform, he says. It's just symbolic. For Maysara el-Sheikh, this is about more than just getting kids to vent their fear and anxiety. It's about raising children who spend their lives caught up in conflict. She says you can't raise them like normal kids.
EL-SHEIKH: (Through translator) If we raise them in the normal way, they won't be able to cope. We prepare them mentally from a young age for the fact that when they grow up, they'll face an enemy.
REEVES: Look around the square and into the faces of the Gazan spectators, you can tell some of them are not comfortable with what they're seeing. Atef Batrawy, an economics consultant, is watching the kids from a park bench.
ATEF BATRAWY: (Through translator) If you want to get rid of violence, you have to cleanse it with love, not by teaching kids how to carry guns or prepare for another conflict.
REEVES: Batrawy thinks behavior like this gives the outside world the wrong idea.
BATRAWY: It does not look good to the international people, because the people see just picture, just see picture.
REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Gaza City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.