MIDDLE EAST CRISIS
‘Nowhere to go’ – Children and healthcare workers trapped in Gaza as food and water run out
Aid agencies have sounded the alarm over the toll the Israel-Hamas war is having on children and healthcare workers in the Gaza Strip. As Israel’s blockade and bombardments enter a second month, there is mounting concern over issues like starvation and disease.
Over the past 33 days of the Israel-Hamas war, thousands of residents of Gaza have been killed, injured and displaced. Many of the victims are children.
The enclave was one of the most densely populated in the world.
With an increasing number of residents sheltering in schools, hospital grounds and public buildings, aid organisations have warned of the potential for a devastating outbreak of disease.
Parties to the conflict have a “vital obligation” to abide by international humanitarian law to better protect civilians and children, according to Toby Fricker, spokesperson for Unicef. Fricker is currently posted in Jordan, which shares a border with the West Bank.
“Unicef has worked in the Gaza Strip and across the state of Palestine for many years. Right now … the first thing that is critical … is an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, given the destruction and the horrific reported number of deaths and injuries of children,” he said.
“What we are also massively concerned about – beyond the bombs and the attacks – are the other issues that are affecting children; meaning the very, very limited access to safe water now; the limited food; the issue of having many, many people living in even more densely populated areas…
“Hygiene and sanitation is a massive concern as well … These are some of the big concerns that we are trying to alleviate – any outbreak of disease or any worsening of the situation.”
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Unicef has also called for the immediate and unconditional release of Israeli hostages, including children, taken by Hamas during the attacks on Israel on 7 October, said Fricker.
Hamas killed more than 1,400 people during these attacks and took about 240 people hostage.
More than 10,800 Palestinians – including at least 4,300 children and 2,800 women – have been killed in Gaza as Israel continues its campaign of retaliatory air strikes. At least 26,000 people have been wounded.
According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), nearly 1.5 million people have been displaced across the Gaza Strip in the past month, with about 725,000 sheltering in 149 UNRWA-designated emergency shelters.
Nowhere to go
For the children of Gaza, there is “nowhere safe to go”, according to Fricker.
They are being exposed to bombardments and violence, even in those places they go to for shelter. He raised concerns about the longer-term psychological impacts on young people in these circumstances.
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“Every day they are living in… this nightmare and we’ve spoken to [staff] who describe how they’re trying to protect … their own families and children who’ve been saying, ‘I just want … to get out of here. We have to get out of here.’ But obviously they can’t,” he said.
“Then you have children who have resorted to self-harm – there was a four-year-old girl whose story we heard and she was ripping her hair [out], scratching her thighs until they bled, because she was in such distress day in, day out, 24-hours a day.”
Fricker told Daily Maverick that getting humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip had been extremely challenging. Unicef has sent through about 52 truckloads of supplies since 21 October, while the UN and other partners have sent around 450.
“What we … and other UN agencies have been saying is that this is totally inadequate for the immense needs that are inside the Gaza Strip now … We need to be able to bring in these supplies much quicker and at a much higher scale, and in a safe and unimpeded way,” he said.
“We’ve seen the dangers that exist. The [UNRWA agency] has had 89 staff members killed. Our own Unicef staff have had family members killed. It’s a very dire situation.”
Health workers at risk
Unicef is not the only aid agency with a long-term presence in Palestine. Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières/MSF) has been operating in the region for over a decade. Before the recent escalation of the conflict, it had 22 international and 300 Palestinian staff in Gaza, according to Andrew Mews, executive director for MSF Southern Africa.
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The international staff were evacuated last week. In the lead-up to their departure, they found that access to food had become increasingly difficult, said Mews.
“Our international staff felt they were getting close to starving to death when they were waiting in Gaza … and it was only by the good grace of the local Palestinians who … came together and brought food to them that they were able to survive,” he said.
“If our supported staff from around the world couldn’t access food, then you can imagine what it’s like for the population. We’re worried about nutritional crises, particularly for children, and we’re worried about access to clean water… which is becoming harder and harder as well.”
MSF has a team of 15 international medical experts waiting for access to Gaza at the Egyptian border, Mews told Daily Maverick. However, they haven’t yet received clearance from the Egyptian authorities to enter the war-torn area.
On 6 November, one of MSF’s team members in Gaza, Mohammed Al Ahel, was killed along with several members of his family.
According to MSF, Ahel had been working for the NGO as a laboratory technician for over two years. He was at his home in Al-Shati Refugee Camp when the area was bombed and his building collapsed, reportedly killing dozens of people.
Today, we are mourning the loss of one of our team members in Gaza, Mohammed Al Ahel, who was killed along with several members of his family on 6 November.
— MSF International (@MSF) November 7, 2023
“The reality is [that] we have contact with the [MSF] staff in Gaza but it breaks [off] because communication comes on and off. Therefore we’re not always sure at any one moment whether all our staff are safe, which is pretty heartbreaking, to be honest,” said Mews.
“We do know that the majority of staff have chosen to stay and continue working. Some staff chose to seek safety with their families in some of the refugee camps in the south … but the vast majority have been incredibly brave and shown some unerring resilience to continue working in the hospitals.”
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Dr Marwan Sultan, a medical director at the Indonesian Hospital, located north of Gaza City near Jabaliya refugee camp, said the healthcare facility was receiving hundreds of people who were wounded during Israeli attacks on the refugee camp.
The hospital has about 140 beds, but on Tuesday, Dr Sultan said it currently had around 400 patients. About 5,000 people – mostly women and children – were sheltering at the Indonesian Hospital, he said.
Dr Sultan described seeing all types of injuries, including amputated limbs, bodies without heads, multiple severe burns, internal bleeding and body parts.
He said nearly all the wounded patients at the hospital are women and children.
“It is a genocide against civilians,” he told Daily Maverick via text message.
The Indonesian Hospital is experiencing a dwindling shortage of medical supplies, and the lack of fuel has resulted in the hospital’s main generator going out of service last week. The hospital is now relying on its emergency generator for critical surgeries, said Dr Sultan.
He said “hundreds of surgeries” have been postponed “due to [a] shortfall of fuel”.
“We have [a] shortage in all medical [supplies], even analgesic and anaesthetics,” he said.
On top of all those challenges, Dr Sultan said many healthcare workers at the facility had been killed in the Israeli attacks.
“We lost a lot of colleagues … A lot of healthcare [workers] have lost their families,” he said.
Mews described the sense of helplessness that came with trying to provide assistance during a conflict that showed “the hallmarks of collective punishment”, where it was not just individuals but the entire population that was targeted.
“[It] gives a sense of helplessness and hopelessness that I’ve never felt before as somebody with a lot of experience in MSF … We would like to do more, and actually, it’s incredibly hard to do more because of the siege and the inability to bring in medical supplies – the inability to negotiate safe access, even for the humanitarians on the ground.
“That’s something that we’ve not seen before in many other conflicts,” he said. DM