Gaza's children rely on us – we must help them

They are facing hunger, malnutrition, grief, displacement, all of it taking a heavy toll on their health and well-being

Palestinian children wait to collect free food handouts from a street kitchen in Deir Al Balah, central Gaza, on March 25. Bloomberg
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The war in the Gaza Strip has dragged on for nearly six months, leaving behind a trail of carnage and devastation unlike anything witnessed in recent years in the region.

Thousands of children have been killed and displaced and the misery continues each day. With bombs persistently raining down from the sky, malnutrition grips the fragile bodies of young ones.

Those who have been lucky to survive are living in unimaginable conditions. More than 1.7 million people – half of them children – are internally displaced, crammed into overcrowded shelters with virtually no access to clean water, sanitation and food.

This lack of basic needs is taking a devastating toll. Diseases such as diarrhoea are spreading rapidly, especially among young children, while the few remaining functional healthcare facilities are struggling to cope with the influx of injuries. The psychological impact is equally profound as children are traumatised by the non-stop bombardment, enduring nightmares, anxiety and a sense of hopelessness.

Malnutrition is ravaging the Gaza Strip and stalking the most vulnerable. Essential food supplies are diminished, markets are in ruins, and families are desperately searching for scraps of food to keep their children from going hungry, all while enough aid, available just a few kilometres away, is being kept out of their reach.

In the past weeks, as millions in the region have been observing Ramadan surrounded by loved ones and abundant food, the people of Gaza have experienced it amid bombs, mourning lost family, displacement, hunger and thirst. Fasting for them is merely an extension of the prolonged hunger they've faced for months. Today's Iftar in Gaza often consists of meagre pieces of bread and limited clean water, if available.

The severe shortage of food, particularly in the north, is driving families and children to the brink of despair. We have witnessed children scouring the land daily for grass, digging through the soil in search of something to bring home and sustain their families. Conversations with new mothers have revealed their distress, as they are unable to breastfeed or adequately care for their infants due to their own lack of nourishment. How can they provide for their children when they themselves are barely surviving on one meal a day?

As a result, more than 20 children, mostly babies, have tragically lost their lives to malnutrition and dehydration evoking memories of past famines, prompting reflection on whether the world has learnt from its history. The reality is that such suffering continues to unfold under the watch of the entire world.

These deaths are preventable. Malnutrition is treatable, but the war and imposed restrictions have severely hampered the humanitarian agencies' ability to deliver life-saving aid.

Recent data shows a concerning trend of rising malnutrition rates, which are escalating exponentially. Today, the entire population in Gaza (2.2 million) is facing high levels of acute food insecurity with a projection that half of those is going into the most severe phase of catastrophic food insecurity – an increase of 530,000 people (92 per cent) compared to the previous analysis.

In the northern Gaza Strip, rates of children facing acute malnutrition has doubled from one in six children (under the age of two years) in January, to one in three today. The rate also doubled in Rafah from 5 per cent to 10 per cent. An imminent famine looms in the horizon, putting thousands of young lives at risk. If the current dire situation persists, things are expected to deteriorate significantly, leading to a potential surge in preventable children's deaths.

The international community must act now. More is needed to uphold international law, protect children and ensure safe and unhindered humanitarian access to deliver vital supplies into and across Gaza.

Member States need to demonstrate their commitment to protecting children and civilians, using their voices in the different diplomatic venues and in the Security Council for an immediate ceasefire and the protection of civilians.

We need those with influence over the parties to the conflict to push for a change on the ground, especially for the sake of the children. We need to see all land crossings into Gaza open. We need to see more aid coming in from all the ports. Security needs to be in place to ensure safe distribution of aid to everyone that needs it, especially the most vulnerable.

This is not just a humanitarian crisis; it is a moral one. It is a test for our humanity and our ability to save the children’s lives. The action or lack of it, will have a consequence on the future and history will judge our collective actions.

At this juncture, the world faces a decision: to remain passive witness as Gaza's children fall victim to hunger and preventable illnesses, or to take urgent decisive action with no further delay to alleviate their suffering and afford them the opportunity for the future they deserve. They rely on us.

Unicef and its partners are doing everything we can to reach those most in need. But we cannot do this alone. We urgently call for a ceasefire, for everyone to prioritise the well-being of children, and for the international community to step up its support. The lives of Gaza's children depend on it.

Published: April 01, 2024, 4:00 AM