JERUSALEM – Child abuse in Israel has gone up five-fold compared to the time before the Intifada, a new report says.
Israeli society is paying a heavy price for the flare-up in the conflict with the Palestinians over the last four years, it emerged from the annual report of the country’s Association for the Protection of Children, or ELI according to its Hebrew acronym.
There is a direct link between the violence and child abuse, says ELI director Hanita Zimrin. "It is not causative because it is the emotional problems of the people who do it that are the reason for the abuse, but the violence does bring those problems earlier to the surface," she told IPS.
ELI said in its report that for the second year running levels of child abuse were extraordinarily high compared to the period before the Intifada, the Palestinian uprising that began September 2000.
The measure the association uses is the number of cases it treats annually. This number has gone up from some 700 in 2000 to 3,600 in 2003.
Other experts in Israel agree that the increased violence that society has faced since September 2000 has an impact on the level of violence in the family. But they sound a note of caution about exactly how much of the increase in child abuse can be attributed directly to the Intifada. Muhammed Haj-Yahia, a child abuse expert at Hebrew University’s school of social studies in Jerusalem, has noticed a similar phenomenon in his research among Palestinian families after the first Intifada, from 1987 to 1993.
"There was clearly a higher level of child abuse among those who had been exposed to political violence in the Palestinian territories," says Haj-Yahia.
Israeli society too has now been exposed to a sustained high level of violence. "People feel threatened, some people are afraid to go out, when they do go out they go to what they consider safe places, with security guards for example. They feel restricted in their freedom of movement; it is one of the mechanisms that increase stress and stress will make itself felt also within the family."
He concludes that there is "a significant relationship" between the political violence and the higher levels of child abuse. "But by how much is hard to say. We have to be cautious because I don’t know if anything has changed in the reporting or if ELI has for example hired more social workers and therefore treats more cases."
Yitzhak Kadman, director of the Israel National Council for the Child, another major child protection NGO, sounds similar warnings. His organization compiles annual figures of the total number of reported cases. There has been an increase since they started keeping the figures in the 1990s that has continued at similar levels over the past four years.
The increases in the ’90s were due to greater awareness and reporting, says Kadman, but that started to level off. The increase over the last four years has different reasons. "One of those reasons, if we look at the internationally available literature as well, is probably the violence of the Intifada"
Kadman also cautions that here are other reasons for the steady rise and that some of it may be due to increased reporting or other changes in ELI’s procedures.
Zimrin was categorical that the increase that her association detected was not the result of better reporting or other statistical changes.
"This is very worrying, it is not coming down after the initial increase," said Zimrin. ELI noted that a lot of the new cases are from families where there is no previous history of child abuse.
"We have to act quickly to deal with that before a pattern of child abuse becomes established in those families," said Zimrin. She recently briefed Israel’s parliament about the problem in the hope of getting more funds to deal with the crisis.
Bomb and missile attacks on population centers leave people rattled, insecure, and frustrated, Zimrin said. People take these feelings home and it impacts the family. There are several ways in which this may lead to more child abuse, she said.
This number is less than the total number of reported cases, which is much higher. Zimrin said that before the Intifada the level of child abuse, at an estimated 40,000 a year, was comparable to other Western countries.
The figures refer to Israel only, not to Palestinian areas. The violence is far more widespread there than in Israel, and Zimrin believes the problems there must be worse. She said ELI had tried to cooperate with Palestinian organizations but this "didn’t work very well."
There are several ways in which violence seeps through from street to home in Israel, Zimrin said. There was a clear pattern that levels of distress and abuse increase wherever the violence moves, she said.
"We can see that it follows the violence by location," said Zimrin. Jerusalem, which suffered under an extended campaign of suicide bombings was an obvious case. More recently a significant increase in cases appeared in the Negev desert town Sderot, the target of an increasing number of missile attacks from Gaza over the last couple of months.
The bombardments have caused several fatalities. Most recently two young children were killed, setting off the largest Israeli military operation in Gaza of the last four years, which has left more than 100 Palestinians dead.
At times the link between cases of child abuse and the violence is very clear, Zimrin said. She cited one case where a mother had become so concerned about letting her *-year-old girl take the bus because of the suicide attacks targeting buses, that she let a family member pick the child up from school.
The relative then sexually abused the girl in the afternoons. The mother did not pick up hints from the girl that something was wrong, "because she was too focused on her own fears," said Zimrin.
In other cases, the anger, fear and frustration boils over directly into more tension in the home and into child abuse.
"The everyday tolerance for children just becomes less," explained Zimrin. She said that the cases involve both actual abuse and neglect. "If a mother stays in bed because she is depressed by the situation and she does not feed her child, that is also abuse," said Zimrin.