UN: Gaza is world's most dangerous place for children


Palestinian children wounded in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip are brought to the hospital in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip, Dec 11, 2023. [AP Photo]

A top U.N. agency says the Gaza Strip is "the most dangerous place in the world to be a child" as Israel's military bombardment of the territory kills and injures thousands of children and thousands more suffer from infectious disease and a lack of food, water and medicine in overcrowded, unsanitary hospitals and shelters.

"I am furious that those with power shrug as this humanitarian nightmare is unleashed on a million children," James Elder, UNICEF spokesman, told journalists Tuesday in Geneva. Elder, who recently returned from a two-week mission in Gaza, said, "I am furious that children recovering from amputations are bombed and killed in Nasser hospital. I am furious that more children, hiding somewhere, have limbs blown off every day.

"I am furious that so many children I met cannot grieve for their killed mother, father and family," he said.

According to Gaza's Ministry of Health, more than 19,400 Palestinians have been killed, about 70% of whom are women and children, since Israel began its bombardment and siege of the enclave in response to the October 7 attacks by Hamas and other armed groups, which killed more than 1,200 soldiers and civilians in Israel.

Elder said Al Nasser hospital in Khan Yunis in southern Gaza was hit by shells twice over the past 48 hours, noting that the hospital shelters large numbers of badly injured children as well as hundreds of women and children seeking safety.

"And so where do children and their families go?" he asked. "They are not safe in hospitals. They are not safe in shelters. And they are certainly not safe in the so-called safe zones."

He described these zones as tiny patches of barren land with no water, no facilities, no shelter from the cold and the rain, with insufficient medical facilities, food and water — and, critically, "no sanitation."

"Currently in Gaza, there is on average around one toilet for 700 children and families," he said. "Relocate families to places where there is no toilet, and it is tens of thousands of people resorting to buckets, or open defecation.

"Without water and sanitation nor shelter, these so-called safe zones have become zones of disease," he added.

Elder warned that soaring rates of malnutrition and diarrhea, combined with insufficiently safe water, food and sanitation, could see child fatalities resulting from disease eclipse those related to the bombardments.

Parents no longer view hospitals as an option for their sick and wounded children, he added, because the facilities are frequently hit by aerial strikes.

The World Health Organization reports only eight of 36 hospitals in Gaza are "barely functioning." According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), northern Gaza's largest hospital, Al Shifa, was struck again early Monday morning, reportedly killing five people, including children.

OCHA reports the hospital was struck again later Monday morning in an area sheltering internally displaced people, killing 26 Palestinians and injuring others.

WHO describes conditions in the functioning hospitals as horrific. WHO spokesperson Margaret Harris said colleagues who had visited hospitals in Gaza said they were "not even able to walk in the emergency areas because of fear of stepping on people. … And when they were not stepping on people, they were stepping on blood."

Her colleagues, all doctors with emergency experience, she said, have "never seen anything like this" and have "run out of words and do not know how to even describe the horrors they are seeing."

In a statement Tuesday, Volker Türk, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, called for a cease-fire, saying that increasing numbers of Palestinians "were being forced into smaller and smaller areas in a mass displacement up to the Gaza-Egyptian border" while military operations encroach ever closer.

"There is simply nowhere left in Gaza for them to go," he said, adding that Rafah has become the epicenter of displacement, with over 1 million people, almost half of the population, concentrated in this overcrowded space.

"They are trapped in a living hell," he said. "The fighting must stop."

Türk called for the release of Israeli hostages, as well as those arbitrarily detained by Israeli forces.

Meanwhile, UNICEF's Elder said he feared Christmas likely would bring an increase in attacks on Gaza as the world is busy with other issues.

"I am furious that 5,000, 6,000, 7,000 killed children are becoming statistics, not stories," he said. "I am furious at hypocrisy crushing empathy."

He said he felt guilt at having to leave Gaza, adding, "I am furious at myself for not being able to do more."