It takes a while but slowly the children gathered around volunteer entertainer Ruaa Hassuna in a Gaza camp start clapping along as her music offers some respite from the horrors around them.

Smiles light up the faces of the children, huddled amid the tents outside the south Gaza town of Rafah which shelter hundreds of thousands of Palestinians driven from their homes by more than two months of relentless Israeli bombardment.

Hassuna is part of a troupe of more than a dozen volunteer entertainers who travel from camp to makeshift camp on a mission to provide children with some escape, however brief, from the death and destruction they have witnessed.

The 23-year-old plays the oud, a lute-like stringed instrument popular across the Middle East. Other volunteers entertain the children with slapstick, acrobatics, story-telling or dance.

"We use whatever means we can to remove the children from the war," says the 23-year-old. "The aim of getting them to sing is to alleviate their stress."

Hassuna says that when her young audiences hear her oud, they "no longer hear the hum of the drones" deployed by the Israeli army, instead immersing themselves in the music.

The United Nations says children make up half of the 1.9 million Palestinians displaced since the onset of the Israel-Hamas war.

They have been forced to abandon their daily routines and live under Israeli bombardment since Hamas's October 7 attacks on Israel killed about 1,140 people, according to an AFP count based on Israel figures.

- 'I want my childhood back' -


Hassuna's troupe travels to a different camp every day, putting on a three-hour performance in each.

"It's an important project because, from what we've observed, the psychological state of the children is very bad," said returning expatriate Awni Farhat, the person behind the initiative.

This space "allows them to unburden themselves of the psychological problems created by this war", said Farhat, who lives in the Netherlands but returned to Gaza during a week-long humanitarian truce in late November.

The UN children's agency, UNICEF, has described the Gaza Strip as "the most dangerous place in the world" for a child.

Speaking after a two-week visit to the besieged coastal enclave, UNICEF spokesman James Elder said he had witnessed children hospitalised for amputations who were then "killed in those hospitals" by Israeli bombardments.

The health ministry in the Hamas-run territory says more than 19,667 people have been killed in Gaza during the war, most of them women or children.

Many of the children in the troupe's audiences are hardened beyond their years, their innocence shattered by fear and bereavement.

"I want to forget my worries and forget the people I've lost," said 15-year-old Nizar Shaheen, adding that he felt "suffocated" by life in the camps.

"I want to live my childhood like we did before," he said, adding: "We don't know where to go. Today, there's no food, no water, there's nothing."