The children who survive Operation Protective Edge will emerge to find their previous lives almost unrecognizable, as the families, schools, hospitals and mosques that framed their world are systematically destroyed.
By Olivia Watson
Israel’s ground invasion of the Gaza Strip has seen the child death toll climb so rapidly – at the rate of one child killed every hour – that the exact circumstances of each killing are now barely mentioned in reports. But lists of fatalities, 329 and rising, obscure the reality that awaits Palestinian children in Gaza. Those who survive will emerge to find their previous lives almost unrecognizable, as the families, schools, hospitals and mosques that framed their world are systematically destroyed.
Ahmad Tawfiq Ahmad Abu Jami’, an 8-year-old boy from Khan Younis, lived through five previous Israeli military offensives in the Gaza Strip. In 2006, two Israeli military operations claimed the lives of 143 children; in 2008 and 2009, two more assaults killed 385; in 2012, yet another led to 33 more deaths. A total of 561 children killed in six years, according to evidence collected by Defence for Children International Palestine. After surviving five attacks, Ahmad did not survive the most recent one: He died in an airstrike that killed 25 members of his family, 18 of whom were children.
Had he survived, he would have become one of thousands more suffering from the effects of the bombardment. More than 326,000 children, according to the latest UN figures, need immediate, specialized psycho-social support after experiencing the deaths of family members, injury or homelessness. This figure includes children fleeing indiscriminate attacks on residential buildings, driven to UN refugee shelters where intense overcrowding exposes them to potential abuse, exploitation and violence. More than 260,000 people – or 15 percent of the total population of Gaza – are taking shelter in UNRWA schools.
There is no safe space now for children in Gaza. Those who escape death the first time around find in their refuges more death and destruction. Hospitals and schools, theoretically protected from military attack under international law, are targeted indiscriminately by the Israeli military, in attacks described by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights as tantamount to war crimes.
In Beit Hanoun, an UNRWA school was directly targeted by the Israeli military, killing 15 people, most of whom were women and children. Reports included a mother and her one-year-old among the dead. When the school was hit, the children and their families who had fled there were preparing to evacuate again, with UN staff trying to coordinate a window with the Israeli army for the removal of civilians. The request was never granted.
Children recovering from initial attacks are then subjected to multiple ordeals, such as two-year-old Ibrahim al-Sheikh Omar, who died when shrapnel from an airstrike hit him as he lay recovering from a previous injury in the intensive care unit at Muhammad al-Durra Hospital.
Those who do survive these attacks will continue to pay the price for many years. Amputees like Mohammad Baroud, 12, who lost both his feet in an explosion that killed 11 of his neighbors, will require lifelong medical care and support. The damage wrought on Gaza’s infrastructure is so profound that children needing treatment will be forced to wait while hospitals are repaired and re-equipped with medical supplies.
For the children who manage to escape physical injury, the psychological effects of this latest operation will be hidden, but severe and resounding. Many have lost one or both parents, or other family members. Some have lost their entire extended families. All have experienced violence, fear and instability at close quarters.
As children reel from the onslaught on Gaza, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accused Hamas of “using telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause,” putting the responsibility for every child death squarely on Palestinian shoulders. Meanwhile, the Israeli authorities block public discussion of the deaths of Gaza’s children.
For a generation of young Palestinians, rhetoric of this kind will create a mindset that can only serve to move the region further away from a lasting peace. Those in Gaza who are children now will take their scars into adulthood, potentially shaping the trajectory of the conflict in years to come.
For now, international efforts are rightly focused on an immediate end to the violence. Those who understand the impact of Operation Protective Edge on the lives of Palestinian children, however, will strive for more: for an end to Israel’s ongoing blockade of the Gaza Strip; for a reappraisal of the impunity offered to the Israeli government that allows these massacres to take place. Only then will Gaza’s children be able to pick up the pieces, for the sixth time.
Olivia Watson is an advocacy officer with Defence for Children International-Palestine, an independent child-rights organization dedicated to defending and promoting the rights of children living in the occupied Palestinian Territory. DCI-Palestine provides free legal assistance to children, collects evidence and conducts advocacy targeting various duty bearers. Follow DCI-Palestine on Twitter and Facebook.