North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

Children are on the frontline of Israel’s war on Gaza – again

Israel’s attacks are following the same pattern of war crimes and targeting of civilians as before, and it’s Gaza’s children who suffer most

Stephen McCloskey
18 May 2021, 12.01am
To date, of those killed in Gaza more than a quarter are children
Abaca Press / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

We are in the midst of another terrifying Israeli onslaught on Gaza. Once again, children are on the frontline. To date, of those killed in Gaza (212), more than a quarter (61) are children, with more than 1,500 people wounded. Ten people in Israel have been killed by rockets fired from Gaza, including two children.

Seven years ago, Israel’s 50-day bombardment of Gaza by land, air and sea, dubbed Operation Protective Edge, resulted in 2,202 deaths, 526 of whom were children and 257 women, according to Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem. The 72 Israeli fatalities included 62 soldiers and six civilians, including a four-year-old child.

After the 2014 onslaught, UNICEF suggested that 373,000 Palestinian children need “immediate psycho-social first aid” to manage the stress, trauma and anxiety resulting from the brutalising and close-hand impact of war.

UNICEF’s Gaza head Pernilla Ironside spoke at the time about the toll the war had taken on children: “The impact has truly been vast, both at a very physical level, in terms of casualties, injuries, the infrastructure that's been damaged, but also importantly, emotionally and psychologically in terms of the destabilising impact that not knowing, not truly feeling like there is anywhere safe to go in Gaza.”

The current onslaught in Gaza is repeating many of the human rights abuses and war crimes that characterised the previous war. In 2014, the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor documented 144 incidents in Gaza in which two or more members of the same family were killed by Israeli forces. This year, the NGO has already reported that 27 families have been targeted since the beginning of hostilities on 10 May.

Euro-Med Monitor considers Israel to be in contravention of Articles 53 and 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention and Article 25 of the Hague Regulations. These prohibit the unjustified destruction of properties. In 2014 in Gaza, according to the UN, 18,000 housing units were partially or completely destroyed and 73 medical facilities damaged, with 500,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Since the start of Israel’s current Operation Guardian of the Walls, more than 38,000 IDPs have sought protection in 48 schools run by the UN.

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The targeting of civilian infrastructure has left Gaza critically short of electricity and drinking water. The UN has reported that 480,000 Gazans have “limited or no access to water” with the seawater desalination plant in northern Gaza no longer operational. Critical fuel shortages have meant just four hours of electricity is available a day amid fears that the enclave could soon be “plunged into darkness”, leaving medical facilities without power.

Siege and blockade of Gaza

The bombardment of Gaza is compounding a humanitarian crisis created primarily by a 14-year siege and blockade imposed by Israel after Hamas took control of the Palestinian territory in 2007.

Condemned by Amnesty International as “collective punishment” of a civilian population, the siege has brought Gaza to the point of “systemic collapse”. The territory’s choked-off economy is denied access to functional trading relations. Consequently, the unemployment rate in Gaza is the world’s highest at 52%, rising to nearly 70% for young people and 75% for women (according to figures from 2019).

Although it withdrew both its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005, Israel remains the occupying power in the territory: it controls the airspace, territorial waters and all but one of the border crossings. According to Amnesty, this means Israel “is responsible for the welfare of the inhabitants in the Strip under international humanitarian law”.

The current bombardment of Gaza is compounding a humanitarian crisis created by the blockade imposed by Israel in 2007

Almost a decade ago, the UN warned that without urgently needed remedial action, by 2020 the Gaza Strip would no longer be a “liveable place”. 2020 has come and gone and yet two million people, half of whom are children, continue to endure unliveable conditions of extreme poverty. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA), 80% of the population is dependent on international assistance.

Harvard researcher Sara Roy argues that Gaza has been subjected to “de-development”, meaning that it has been “dispossessed of its capacity for rational and sustainable economic growth and development, coupled with a growing inability to effect social change”. What we are witnessing in Gaza today, she suggests, is the “logical endpoint” of this policy – “a Gaza that is functionally unviable”.

The UN secretary-general has found that the blockade of Gaza and related restrictions “contravene international humanitarian law as they target and impose hardship on the civilian population, effectively penalising them for acts they have not committed”.

No reverting to ‘normal’

Lifting the blockade, therefore, has to be part of a permanent cessation of hostilities in Gaza. Reverting to the ‘normality’ of Gaza’s isolation from the world – with its crumbling infrastructure, economic inertia and prolonged human suffering – is not an option. As Amnesty put it some years ago: “The Israeli authorities must immediately lift the illegal blockade and end their collective punishment of Gaza’s population.”

Returning to so-called ‘normal’ leaves an endemically impoverished population vulnerable to another attack. Israel’s current military operation is its fourth since 2008, following operations Cast Lead (2008), Pillar of Defence (2012) and Protective Edge (2014). Each new attack reinforces the impotence of the last and exposes the limitations of Israel’s military power in Gaza.

The current attacks on Gaza will deepen the mental health crisis for the Palestinians living there, particularly among the young, and blight the lives of children experiencing their fourth war in 13 years. As Save the Children makes clear : “There is no possible justification for children being killed or injured. We condemn and demand an immediate stop to the indiscriminate targeting and killing of civilians, including children. This is a grave violation of children’s rights and perpetrators must be held to account for their actions and brought to justice.”

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