Protecting Gaza’s children is the need of the hour

The high death toll among young people partly reflects the fact that nearly half of Gaza’s population is under the age of 18

By Nurul Izzah Anwar and Yolanda Augustin

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Palestinian children injured in an Israeli air strike await treatment at the Nasser hospital in Khan Yunis in the southern of Gaza Strip on October 17, 2023. Photo: AFP
Palestinian children injured in an Israeli air strike await treatment at the Nasser hospital in Khan Yunis in the southern of Gaza Strip on October 17, 2023. Photo: AFP

Published: Tue 28 Nov 2023, 7:37 PM

In just over 50 days, some 20,000 civilians in Gaza have been injured, while more than 8,000 have been killed, according to Palestinian officials. A majority of the dead – at least 5,500 – are children, which amounts to one Palestinian child killed every 10 minutes, while an additional 1,800 children are missing, and presumed dead, under the rubble.

The high death toll among young people partly reflects the fact that nearly half of Gaza’s population is under the age of 18. But it can also be attributed to the targeted attacks against civilian infrastructure, including Al Shifa Hospital, Indonesian Hospital, and the United Nations-run Al Fakhura school. As a result, at least 21 of Gaza’s 35 hospitals – including the Turkish-Palestinian Friendship Hospital, the only facility providing chemotherapy for cancer patients – are no longer operational. (The aid agency Save the Children has warned that children’s mental health in Gaza is being pushed beyond the breaking point.)

The UN Security Council has identified and condemned the willful killing and maiming of children as one of “six grave violations” of its 1999 resolution on children and armed conflict. But, as UN Secretary-General António Guterres remarked in late October, there are many “clear violations of international humanitarian law that we are witnessing in Gaza.” Deprived of water, food, fuel, and electricity, and facing a shortage of medical supplies, doctors and nurses have struggled to care for patients; in some cases, surgeons have been forced to operate without anesthesia.

These grim conditions have had dire consequences for the premature babies on life support at Al Shifa Hospital. Eight have died, while 28 more had to be evacuated to Egypt and are being treated for “serious infections”.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk has warned that the lack of clean water and the acute shortage of fuel will almost surely lead to the collapse of Gaza’s sanitation systems, resulting in infectious-disease outbreaks – to which children are particularly vulnerable. Moreover, hunger is now severe and widespread, as the price of basic items has skyrocketed and food deliveries have slowed to a trickle. The threat of starvation and malnutrition looms, and it is once again young people who are most at risk.

International organisations, governments, civil-society groups, activists, academics, and industry leaders must take urgent action to broker a lasting ceasefire (not just a temporary pause), to secure the release of all hostages, and to prevent a genocide against the Palestinian people. Israel must stop targeting hospitals and schools; ensure the unimpeded delivery of food, water, medicine, and fuel; and open humanitarian corridors for civilians, especially children, pregnant women, the sick, persons with disabilities, and the elderly. Finally, these groups must continue calling for an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.

While people worldwide have urged their governments to take a principled stand against the ongoing atrocities in Palestine, consumer boycotts can also be a powerful tool for change. Inspired by the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement seeks to exert non-violent pressure on Israel until it complies with international law. More than 30 states in the United States have adopted anti-BDS measures – a paradoxical tribute to the movement’s effectiveness.

It is also imperative to support young Palestinian refugees across the world. Malaysia, in particular, is well placed to take a leading role in this effort.

The country’s sovereign wealth fund, Khazanah Nasional Berhad, together with its grant-making foundation, Yayasan Hasanah, has offered scholarships for Palestinians studying at Malaysian universities – a programme that the government is working to expand. Numerous educational initiatives, including the Fugee School, Malaysian Relief Agency, Yayasan Chow Kit, and Baitul Mahabbah, have been established for refugee children, although increased funding would ensure their continued success. Malaysia should also follow Turkey’s example and allow more refugees to work legally.

As for children still living in Gaza, Malaysia can help by working together with Indonesia and Turkey to rebuild hospitals and schools. Malaysia has taken an initial step by establishing a RM 100 million ($21 million) humanitarian aid fund for the Palestinian people.

As calls for a lasting ceasefire in Gaza intensify, we must put pressure on Israel to end the killing of children and other civilians while also supporting young Palestinians at home and abroad. In the words of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, we must help the children of Gaza – too many of whom have lost their childhood, if not their lives – carry their “banner of hope” for a normal existence.

Nurul Izzah Anwar, a former member of the Malaysian parliament, is a political activist. Yolanda Augustin is an oncologist and health activist.

- Project Syndicate


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