Israeli and Palestinian Children Becoming More Violent, Study Finds

Joint American, Israeli, and Palestinian study shows a correlation between children's exposure to political violence and their own violent behavior.

A new study by a team of American, Israeli and Palestinian researchers identifies rising trends of violence among children in the Middle East, as a result of the protracted Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

The study, funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, examined reports of displays of violence among more than 1,000 children, and the findings show a correlation between children's exposure to political violence and their own violent behavior.

The researchers examined a sample of 451 Jewish children, 450 Israeli Arab children and 600 Palestinian children (64 percent from the West Bank; 36 percent from the Gaza Strip ) during three points in time between 2007 and 2010.

The children were asked about their exposure to political violence, including on television. About 10 percent of the Palestinian children said a relative had died in an event tied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the figures among Israeli Jewish children and Israeli Arab children were seven percent and three percent, respectively.

However, when asked if a friend or acquaintance of theirs had died in the conflict, 55 percent of Palestinian children answered "yes," compared to 13 percent of Israeli Jews and three percent of Israeli Arabs.

Among all children questioned, 51.8 percent reported that there were incidents of violence in their family during the first time period (2007 ); this figure rose to 58.7 percent by 2010.

The rise in reports of violence in school from the first time frame, 2007, to the 2010 period was significant: from 6.4 percent to 11.7 percent. There was also a substantial increase in reports about exposure to violence in the child's community - 26.8 percent of the surveyed children attested to such violence in 2007, compared to 32.6 percent regarding 2010.

In the researchers' analysis, exposure to political violence during the first phase of this three-year period had a clear tendency to lead to violent behavior at school, at home or in the neighborhood. The influence of such exposure to political violence was identified most clearly among the younger children - those who were first interviewed at age eight (as opposed to those who were ages 11-14 during their first interview).

This study is the first of its kind - probing patterns of violence among children in international war zones. It concludes that Palestinians have higher exposure in their childhood to displays of political violence, and are therefore at greater risk of developing violent habits in their own lives.

The study was headed by researchers from Michigan and Rutgers universities. Also taking part were Prof. Simcha Landau and Dr. Shira Dvir Gvirsman from Hebrew University and Dr. Khalil Shikaki of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. The study's results were conveyed this week in an on-line edition of the Child Development Journal.

'More severe than a contagious disease'

Prof. Rowel Huesmann, director of the Research Center for Group Dynamics at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, and a collaborator in the project, stated that "violence is akin to a contagious disease, with one exception - it is more severe." To catch a contagious disease, he points out, one needs to be near an infected person, whereas violence can be transmitted from afar.

Landau, head of the Criminology Department at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College, stated that the "study demonstrates how violence in the Middle East influences future generations. It is well known that there are victims in every war, but mostly we think of direct victims; but we found that children are who are exposed to violence are indirect victims, and that exposure to violence has results on the ground."

In previous research studies, Landau identified a similar pattern of violence at the community level resulting from war. He established, for instance, that in periods when there was a rise in the number of enemy attacks in Israel, there was also an increase here in murders. "That reflects a process of getting accustomed to violence as a normative phenomenon," he explains.

"Studies have shown that the rate of acts of murder increases in states that are involved in wars, without any connection to whether they win or lose such wars."

The researchers believe that this new study attests to the risks posed to children who live in regions that are embroiled in violent conflict. Its findings, the researchers claim, justify intervention to protect children who are exposed to political violence.