NEW YORK, USA, 5 February 2008 – The UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy, is in Gaza and southern Israel this week to assess the situation of children and advocate for their protection.
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In Gaza, Ms. Coomaraswamy, accompanied by a team from UNICEF, visited a community centre, a school and a hospital – all in the north, in and around Gaza City. She repeated calls for the territory’s borders to be opened and access by humanitarian aid organizations to be expanded.
“The children want answers and the international community must deliver,” declared Ms. Coomaraswamy.
Losses on both sides
During her four-day stay in the region Ms. Coomaraswamy also met with residents in the Israeli town of Ashkelon, which suffered from rocket attacks fired from Gaza.
She said that children on both sides of the border had expressed anger, despair and a need for accountability.
At a school that Ms. Coomaraswamy visited in Zaitoun, a neighborhood east of Gaza City, Almaza Hilmi Al Samuni, 13, was attending a counselling session held by a UNICEF partner organization, the Palestinian Centre for Democracy and Conflict Resolution. Almaza said she wanted the Special Representative to meet the children who, like herself, had lost their mothers.
“They died right before my eyes. There was nothing I could do to save them,” she said of her family members.
Ms. Coomaraswamy noted that Israeli children were also still living in fear, and called for an end to the indiscriminate firing of rockets into civilian areas.
Education as a basic right
In Beit Lahiya, Gaza, Ms. Coomaraswamy visited the Omar Ben Al-Kathab school – which is now operating on double shifts to accommodate an additional 400 students from a nearby school that sustained heavy damage in the recent violence.
More than 160 schools across Gaza were damaged during the conflict. All UN Relief and Works Agency schools were reopened on 24 January after being closed for a month.
“Reconstructing the schools and ensuring that children can go back to their classrooms and feel secure again is essential to their recovery,” said Ms. Coomaraswamy. “Education is a basic right, an emergency need and a development imperative. It must be prioritized in any emergency response.”
UNICEF is providing essential education equipment and materials, including School-in-a-Box kits, pens, pencils and exercise books, recreational kits, and math and science kits for children in all six districts of Gaza.
Creating a protective environment
Even before the recent conflict, the children of Gaza suffered from years of conflict, blockade, lack of adequate social services, and poverty. Coping mechanisms of communities had already been eroded prior to the conflict. Access to basic needs and the creation of a sense of security and a safe environment is essential for the well-being of children.
“UNICEF is calling for regular, sufficient and facilitated access of humanitarian goods and aid workers into Gaza,” said UNICEF’s Representative in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Patricia McPhillips, who accompanied Ms. Coomaraswamy during the mission. “This includes educational and recreational supplies … to provide a sense of normalcy for children who have experienced severe levels of distress.”
The Special Representative is mandated by the UN General Assembly as an independent advocate for children in armed conflict. UNICEF is a leading member of the international coordination group working to monitor and report on grave violations of child rights in conflict situations.