EVERY parent will tell you that the most heartbreaking imagined fear haunting the darkest reaches of the night is that of losing a child.

Much, much worse, though, must be the anguish of parents who have actually experienced such a horror and who will live with the pain of it every day for the rest of their lives.

Any and every human being, parent or not, will – or should – empathise with such tragedies.

In fact you would have to have the hardest and cruellest of hearts not to be touched by hearing of them and by the sight of them, as we had this week when the world witnessed, among so much other grieving, the tragic, dignified heartache of Al Jazeera Arabic’s Gaza correspondent Wael Al-Dahdouh, whose wife, son, daughter and grandson were all killed in an Israeli air raid.

He is, alas, far from being the only one in Gaza now in deep mourning and despair – and there will be many more unless we assert our common humanity and do all we can to demand peace.

It does not matter if a child is Israeli or Palestinian, Ukrainian or Russian, black or white, rich or poor, Christian or Muslim, Jew or Gentile. All children are equally precious and their loss is equally devastating.

What Hamas terrorists did on the night of October 7 in Israel – to adults and children alike – was barbaric and reprehensible. Those responsible, and those who ordered it to be done, deserve to be pursued with the full rigour of the law, national and international. Nothing can justify it, nor can anything justify the continued holding of children and adults as hostages.

What is now happening to innocent children and adults in Gaza must, however, be condemned with equal rigour. Neither national nor international law permits the collective punishment of whole communities let alone a blockade of their essential supplies while they are being relentlessly bombarded day and night from land, sea and air.

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Responsibility for what is happening cannot be mitigated by claiming that everything is being done to avoid it, particularly if the death toll continues to mount day after day. Deaths of children and innocent civilians are never and must never be thought to be inevitable, still less acceptable collateral damage.

Of course Hamas is exploiting suffering for propaganda ends but that does not mean that the norms of human behaviour, let alone international law, can be set aside and those norms include protecting innocent life and particularly the lives of children.

Arguing that a warning has been given and evacuation mandated isn’t an adequate response either. Even without the suspicion that the end game is to expel as many Palestinians as possible – perhaps all – from Gaza into the Sinai desert, forcing children to leave their homes with no timing for return, is bad enough but instructing them to go to places which are themselves under attack is even worse.

What is essential now is a ceasefire, not merely a pause. The difference is not merely semantic. A pause may bring temporary relief but does nothing to bring a solution nearer. A ceasefire, properly monitored, is the precursor, no matter how fragile, of securing an eventual road to peace.

Given the deep roots of the Arab/Israeli conflict, it is certain that even if Hamas is virtually wiped out, the anger and enmity of Israel’s neighbours will continue and will flare up again.

Only a settlement that respects and entrenches a two-sovereign-state solution has any chance of working and the pressure from every part of the international community –no matter their geopolitical adherence – should be devoted to securing that.

That can only start again with a ceasefire in place. That ceasefire would not deny Israel’s right to defend itself nor would it undermine the justified Palestinian demand for land and statehood.

THE obligation would be on both sides to agree to it and observe it but the obligation on all the rest of us must surely now be to raise our voices in favour of it and therefore in favour of peace and against the suffering of the innocent.

That suffering is physical but it is also mental and the mental health effects of bombardment and warfare are well documented. There is a complex interaction between actual damage to the brain from repeated exposure to explosions and the physiological effect of constant fear and uncertainty in violent circumstances which are out of one’s control.

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The study of these issues is almost a century old – with the first article about what was then called “shell shock” published in The Lancet in 1915 – and it continues to this day.

Many of the children who are now in Gaza will, if they survive, suffer lifetime effects in terms of their mental health, with post-traumatic stress causing a range of illnesses including acute depression, sometimes manifested in antisocial behaviour. There will be similar problems ahead for a generation or more of Israeli children.

Unremitting close-up war and the uncertainty regarding imminent attack and death have deep and long-lasting effects. However, much less well understood is the effect of witnessing those things at a distance.

Constant exposure to 24-hour intense rolling news coverage about Gaza and doom scrolling real and fake reporting about the tragedy on social media is building on anxieties already heightened by the continuing bloodshed in Ukraine and influenced by the long-lasting effects of the still very recent Covid lockdown.

All those things are likely to be pressing in on many of our fellow citizens, some of whom have no support structures to help them cope.

We rightly worry about the way in which we are poisoning this planet and about the possibility of nuclear annihilation.

We should also be worried about the pressures on ourselves and our neighbours given that we are now constant witnesses to the frontline abominations of warfare and the sufferings of so many of our fellow human beings.

That will have – indeed is having – consequences too.