No safe place for children in Gaza
By Catherine Weibel
GAZA, State of Palestine, 28 July 2014 – As the hostilities enter their twenty-first day, the number of children dying is growing. More than 1,000 Palestinians have been reported killed so far, of whom around 230 were children – more than 10 a day. The youngest child killed was only 3 months old.
Nearly 2,000 children have been injured in the narrow coastal enclave, where half the population is under 18.
“The physical and psychological toll that the violence is having on people is almost indescribable,” says Pernille Ironside, Chief of the UNICEF field office in Gaza. “We see children killed, injured, mutilated and burnt, in addition to being terrified to their core. The consequences run much deeper than previous flare-ups,” she adds.
A recent lull in fighting saw UNICEF visit hospitals. Ms. Ironside met with 4-year-old Shayma.
“The little girl was longing for her mother and her siblings, all of whom died as they were seeking shelter, leaving their home in search of a safer place; only this child and her father survived,” says Ms. Ironside. “How do you tell a 4-year-old that most of her family died?”
The violence has claimed entire families. On 20 July, 25 members of the Abu Jamaa family were killed in a single airstrike on their home as they were eating Iftar, the dinner that breaks Ramadan fasting for the day. Eighteen of those killed were children, aged 4 months to 14 years.
Childhood, itself, for many is being destroyed, with children bearing lasting emotional and physical scars as they go through the third episode of conflict in six years.
“Usually, children are quite resilient and bounce back, but when they go through too many violent episodes, the violence itself becomes the new normal; they are likely to repeat it themselves in later life,” says Bruce Grant, UNICEF Chief of Child Protection for State of Palestine.
An estimated 200,000 children are in need of immediate psychosocial support. Five UNICEF-supported emergency psychosocial support teams are reaching out to injured children and children who have lost loved ones in order to provide them with some immediate coping skills.
Schools under attack
As 44 per cent of Gaza is now a no-go area, a tenth of the population – over 173,000 people – have sought shelter in schools run by the United Nations. But not a single place in Gaza appears to be safe anymore. Last week, a UNRWA school was shelled, killing 15 people, including 6 children. This marked the third time that a United Nations–run school had come under direct attack.
So far, at least 130 schools have been damaged because of air strikes of shelling nearby; another school was reported used by Palestinian armed groups for storing rockets, in disregard for the neutrality of schools.
Schools as shelter
Another 10,000 people have taken shelter in public schools, the vast majority of whom are children.
“We hear a lot of air strikes around us, some close and some far away, but the school is better than my house. I feel that if I go back home I will die,” says 20-year-old Qamar, whose name means ‘moon’. She fled deadly fighting taking place in her neighbourhood before taking shelter in Gaza City’s Hamama basic school with her family. “I don’t know if my friends are alive.”
UNICEF has started distributing hygiene kits for adults and babies in public schools. Together with the World Food Programme, UNICEF has also provided more than 1,300 families with electronic vouchers they can use to buy food, water and hygiene products at local shops.
Humanitarian needs are urgent
Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate. At least half of the water and sanitation infrastructure is no longer functioning. Two thirds of the population are now without access to safe water. Several water wells, the main sewage pumping station and the primary sewage treatment plant have been hit. In some areas, sewage has flown down the street into the neighbourhoods and fields, increasing health hazards for children. Even where some urgent repairs could be made to re-establish some of the connections, it is not possible because of a lack of safe humanitarian access for municipal workers; four have been killed while on duty.
As Eid begins – marking the end of the month of Ramadan, usually a time of feasts and fun for children – sustained humanitarian corridors and pauses are needed to respond to children’s urgent humanitarian needs. This is just the first step of a very long process of healing and recovery that Gaza and its children will have to undergo once a ceasefire is reached.