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‘Nowhere to go’ – Children and healthcare workers trapped in Gaza as food and water run out

‘Nowhere to go’ – Children and healthcare workers trapped in Gaza as food and water run out
A woman carries the body of her child, killed in an air strike on a house in the Khan Younis refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, 8 November 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / HAITHAM IMAD)

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.”

Smoke rises during combat between the Israeli army and the Ezz Al-Din Al Qassam military wing of Hamas, western Tel al-Hawa neighbourhood, northern Gaza Strip, 9 November 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / MOHAMMED SABER)

Read more in Daily Maverick: Israel-Palestine War

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. 

Palestinian families who fled their homes gather on the premises of Al-Quds hospital, 30 October 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / MOHAMMED SABER)

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.

Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘There is no safe place in Gaza’ — humanitarian groups, hospitals overwhelmed as death toll nears 10,000

“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.”

Khan Yunis camp residents fill containers with water at a distribution point in southern Gaza, 8 November 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / HAITHAM IMAD)

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. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: SA recalls diplomats in Tel Aviv over ‘untenable’ situation with Israeli ambassador

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.

“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.”

Palestinian people who fled their homes gather at the Al-Quds hospital following Israeli airstrikes on Tel al-Hawa neighbourhood in Gaza City, 31 October 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / MOHAMMED SABER)

Read more in Daily Maverick: Understanding the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 5 charts

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

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    What I don’t understand is why is Hamas not releasing the hostages? Israel made it clear that they will stop this madness if the hostages are released…

    • Louise Louise says:

      Where did you see that Israel would stop if the hostages were released? I don’t recall seeing that?

      • Karl Sittlinger says:

        Juat today in The Guardian, article is called “Israeli PM tells US: no pause in Gaza fighting without release of hostages”

        • Louise Louise says:

          Thanks Karl! Maybe Hamas wants a ceasefire as opposed to a “pause”? There is another article today in DM about 4 hour “pauses” in bombing:

          “Israel will enact “tactical local pauses for humanitarian aid, which are limited in time and area,” Israeli army spokesperson Richard Hecht said. He played down the importance of the announcement as Israel presses ahead with a campaign against Hamas in the wake of the group’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

          Calls have grown in the Arab world and elsewhere for a cease-fire. Netanyahu has rejected that idea, saying Israel must root out Hamas in the wake of the attack.”

          If Netanyahu was so concerned about the hostages he would not be bombing Gaza so much? The Zionists have already proven that they will kill their own hostages if it means killing Hamas fighters.

          I believe Netanyahu said he would not surrender to Hamas?

        • John P says:

          Karl I think that means a pause, not a cease fire.

          • Colin McGee says:

            “no pause in Gaza fighting without release of hostages” certainly doesn’t mean, as you say, that “Israel made it clear that they will stop this madness if the hostages are released”.
            I don’t believe that Israel – or rather, Netanyahu – has any intention of stopping this insanity until Gaza is razed.

          • Karl Sittlinger says:

            They also used the words cease fire. From ABC news:
            “”Well, there’ll be no cease-fire, general cease-fire, in Gaza without the release of our hostages,” Netanyahu responded. “As far as tactical little pauses, an hour here, an hour there. We’ve had them before, I suppose, will check the circumstances in order to enable goods, humanitarian goods to come in, or our hostages, individual hostages to leave. But I don’t think there’s going to be a general cease-fire.”
            Muir then asked Netanyahu if there would be such a pause if Hamas to agree to the release of hostages. According to Israeli officials, 241 people are being held by the militant group.

            “There will be a cease-fire for that purpose,” Netanyahu responded.”

        • Louise Louise says:

          It’s difficult, isn’t it? Hamas probably thinks that Netanyahu won’t keep to his word if the hostages are released? I’m also not taking sides here – not with Hamas or the Zionists. I just think that the world is “helpless” to stop this deliberate killing of civilians. They have nowhere to run, literally nowhere. I heard one commentator say “it’s like shooting fish in a barrel”. It’s the most horrendous situation – and it’s been going on for decades. The UN and other psychopathic people/organisations just don’t care one iota about the ordinary people. It’s a lesson to all of us.

          • Dietmar Horn says:

            The “world” and no one in the “world” can help as long as the leaders of both sides see the solution in finally wiping out the other. Defaming the UN and others as psychopathic is not a solution either. The UN cannot solve today’s problems because it is a construct of the victorious powers of World War II and the victors of the past fell out in the Cold War. They were divided into two ideological camps from the start, which is why the UN turned out to be a “stillborn” from the start.

  • Agf Agf says:

    Why argue the semantics between a ceasefire and a pause? If Hamas surrender and handover all the hostages, Israel will stop bombing and the war will be over.

  • Theresa Avenant says:

    I do not profess to be an expert on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. According to the history I have read, the Palestinians have had an unjustifiably raw deal so far. However, there is so much conflicting literature on the subject that the best approach, in my view would be to approach the matter from a humanitarian perspective. According to what I have read, Hammas has been calling for an end to a particular instance of cruelty where some 5,000 Palestinian prisoners in an Israeli prison are being kept in unspeakably inhumane conditions where there is no food, no water, no sanitation, no medical support and no justice. These prisoners are slowly but surely dying of starvation and disease in filthy conditions. After continuously appealing to the Israeli government to address this horror, Hammas has simply been ignored. In act of desparation they entered Israel and dropped a bomb killing 1,400 Israelians. In response, Benjamin Netanyahu said that he would not rest until Hammas is completely wiped out and Gaza is flattened (not his exact words). So far, close to 10,000 Palestinians have been killed and thousands of others displaced – mostly women and children. BN is now placing thousands of innocent Palestinian women and children in the same position as the Palestinian prisoners – no food, no water, no medical etc, and as a result, many more thousands of innocent Palestinians will die. Seems like a very one sided story to me.

  • Lorna Monkley says:

    I have been in contact with some Israeli friends living in Jerusalem for some years now. The stories and photos and videos I have seen from an Israeli perspective are somewhat in conflict with the reports being given by people living in Palestine.
    Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that the Israeli are perfect and that there is no truth in some of the stories of brutality and harsh treatment we hear, but as with any conflict, there are two sides to every story and both sides are guilty of biased reporting.
    In a sense of fairness, I would like to point out some verifiable facts that may change your view that Israel is the sole monster in this war.

    Firstly, this war is not a sudden revenge scourge started on Oct 7 2023 in retaliation for the 1400 Israeli citizens brutally killed in a savage and inhumane attack (even the Hamas Go-pro cameras show the extent of the viciousness and unnecessary brutality of the attacks), nor is it just about the (initially) almost 300 “hostages” taken (I am sorry but I do not agree with babies and toddlers, having to watch their parents being killed and then ripped away from safety and forced to go to a strange and foreign place with those same killers, being classified as hostages).
    This goes back a lot further than that.

  • Lorna Monkley says:

    The Israeli civilian people have been attacked, endured endless suicide bombing attacks, have had to construct Bomb shelters, teach their children how to “duck and seek cover” and had to perfect the Iron Dome system of protection, due to an almost continuous bombardment of missiles and stingers for many years (probably close to 3 generations) with little or no support from the world. Instead they have been criticized and blamed at every turn. Think of the psychological trauma their children had to suffer.
    In spite of this, they have flourished. They have turned a desert into a viable agrilogic system and have on more than one occasion offered this technology to other countries including Gaza. They have researched and engineered many medical and surgical breakthroughs which they are more than willing to share. They have even on a regular basis treated the people from Gaza and the West bank to first class medical treatment in their own hospitals. They have opened both job opportunities and citizenship to the embattled Arab and Palestinian population. They have been supplying fuel, electricity and food to Palestine/Gaza and the west bank on a regular monthly basis without conditions and despite their (Palestinian) insistence on self governance.
    After the 6 day war (in which they were not the initial aggressors) they handed back much of the land they had conquered in a gesture of peace – something they were not obliged to do according to the accepted articles of war.

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