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A War on Gaza’s Future? Israeli Assault Leaves 500 Kids Dead, 3,000 Injured, 373,000 Traumatized

StoryAugust 21, 2014
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Image Credit: UNICEF

As the Israeli offensive in Gaza resumes, we look at the impact the military campaign has had on the children of Gaza. More than 467 Palestinian children have died since July. That is more than the combined number of child fatalities in the two previous conflicts in Gaza. According to the World Health Organization, more than 3,000 children have been injured, of which an estimated 1,000 will suffer from a lifelong disability. The United Nations estimates at least 373,000 children require direct and specialized psychosocial support. And, based on the total number of adults killed, there may be up to 1,500 children orphaned. Gazan children’s right to an education has also been severely compromised with at least 25 schools reportedly damaged so severely that they can no longer be used. We speak to Pernille Ironside, chief of UNICEF’s Gaza field office.

“There isn’t a single family in Gaza who hasn’t experienced personally death, injury, the loss of their home, extensive damage, displacement,” Ironside says. “The psychological toll that has on a people, it just cannot be overestimated, and especially on children.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Three senior Hamas commanders have reportedly died in an airstrike on the Gaza Strip earlier today near the southern town of Rafah. The strike came one day after an Israeli airstrike killed the wife and seven-month-old son of Hamas’s top commander, Mohammed Deif. According to Agence France-Presse, at least six Palestinians, four of them children, were killed in Israeli attacks overnight in the northern town in Beit Lahia and in Gaza City. Another four Palestinians died in an airstrike on a graveyard in Gaza City. More than 2,000 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have been killed since Israel began its offensive seven weeks ago—six weeks ago.

AMY GOODMAN: Israel has lost 64 soldiers in the conflict. Three civilians in Israel have been killed. In a nationwide address in Tel Aviv Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed a continuous campaign against Hamas.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: [translated] Only the guarantee of the calm and safety of Israeli citizens will bring an end to this operation, and therefore, I will continue to operate with firmness and insistence. Operation Protective Edge is not finished, not for a minute. We are talking about a continued campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, in the Gaza city of Rafah, many residents are searching for survivors after Israeli airstrikes. Khaled Younis is an owner of one of the houses destroyed.

KHALED YOUNIS: [translated] At 2:30 a.m., while we were sleeping, they struck us with the first rocket, then a second, then a third, and then four consecutive rockets. There was no warning, no phone call, nothing at all. All of a sudden, the house was struck. People are now searching for bodies. And the houses have sustained heavy damage, and the situation cannot get any worse.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to look at the impact the offensive has had on children. More than 467 Palestinian children have died since July. That’s more than the combined number of child fatalities in the two previous conflicts in Gaza. According to the World Health Organization, over 3,000 children have been injured, of which an estimated 1,000 will suffer from lifelong disabilities.

AMY GOODMAN: The United Nations estimates at least 373,000 children require direct and specialized psychosocial support. And based on the total number of adults killed, there may be up to 1,500 children orphaned. Gazan children’s right to an education has also been severely compromised, with at least 25 schools reportedly damaged so severely they can no longer be used.

For more, we spend the remainder of the hour with Pernille Ironside, chief of UNICEF’s Gaza field office, just here in New York for a few days before returning to Gaza.

Pernille, welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the situation there. You were there through the entire assault until now.

PERNILLE IRONSIDE: Yes. Today, the future of Palestinian children in Gaza is extraordinarily bleak. The entire population has experienced a deep form of trauma, and there isn’t a single family in Gaza who hasn’t experienced personally death, injury, the loss of their home, extensive damage, displacement. The psychological toll that has on a people, it just cannot be overestimated, and especially on children. I’ve met children who have experienced extraordinary wounds, who have watched as family members were dismembered before their eyes, obliterated. You know, shortly after that terrible incident on the beach, the following day I met with the surviving three—

AMY GOODMAN: The beach being?

PERNILLE IRONSIDE: The Gaza City beach in Gaza.


PERNILLE IRONSIDE: Across from the al-Deira Hotel and where four children were killed. And I met with the surviving three boys, who had watched and who had just barely escaped with their lives. They were in a deep state of trauma. I mean, the impact and the type of weaponry that’s being used is literally shredding and obliterating people, and particularly children, who are so small and vulnerable. You know, and all of this is coming on top of an already deep—deep wounds from two previous conflicts. So, a seven-year-old child has already had to live through that and is now exposed to having all of these fears and frustrations and anger and emotions and reliving loss, on top of what’s happening now.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And this sense that in Gaza there is no place that is safe anymore, not even under the auspices of the United Nations? Could you talk about some of the attacks that have come on schools or shelters that are being run by the United Nations?

PERNILLE IRONSIDE: You know, there appears to be a rollback in terms of the compliance with the norms of international humanitarian law that dictate civilians and civilian objects, including shelters that are run for relief purposes, are protected spaces at all times. There have been six attacks and strikes on U.N. facilities to which people have sought safety. And these are people who received notifications to clear out of their neighborhoods because they were going to become military zones of operation. They fled, seeking safety, believing that the United Nations and these designated shelters, that had been fully coordinated with the Israeli officials, would provide them that safety—and instead, multiple cases of fatalities and injuries, including entire families in the middle of the night were impacted. So not even the sanctity of the U.N. flag right now is being respected in Gaza.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And how many United Nations personnel died in these attacks?

PERNILLE IRONSIDE: There have been 11 United Nations colleagues who have been killed, tragically, in the last few weeks.

AMY GOODMAN: There are 1.8 residents, something like that—1.8 million residents of Gaza. Again, how many of them are children?

PERNILLE IRONSIDE: Over half of the population of Gaza is in fact children. It’s a million children. And that’s children below the age of 18. When you look at individuals who are below 30, the youth, that is the majority of Gaza. So the conditions right now that are being allowed to perpetuate in Gaza, and are in fact being gravely exacerbated, really are dictating the future for these children. And it’s extraordinarily bleak. How is a child going to cope with and have any kind of sense of optimism or sense of a future possibility and the value of continuing with their studies under the conditions of the occupation and with this third cycle of violence? It’s our duty as the international community to put an end to this and to provide a reason to live for these children.

You know, 14-year-old Razan, a young girl who I met just shortly before last week, she’s well educated, smart, comes from a good family. She told me that she preferred to have been killed under the bombardment than rather to survive and be faced with the ongoing anguish and sense of deprivation and hopelessness of the future that is Gaza right now. And that sentiment is widely shared amongst many people, but especially amongst children. You know, UNICEF is one agency that’s trying to actively counter that and provide kids with the coping skills and the reason to live and believe there is a brighter future, through education, through extracurricular activities, through the psychosocial support that we’ve been providing for years. But what children ultimately need is peace, and that requires political action.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The repeated ceasefires now that have been attempted over the last several days, what is your sense of what needs to change in the status quo? Because if we have another ceasefire, you’re still dealing with the reality that the U.N. has to do all of this work to basically keep the people of Gaza alive and functioning. What do you feel needs to be done beyond just a ceasefire?

PERNILLE IRONSIDE: Well, people cannot just live from one ceasefire to the next. It is incredibly destabilizing. It’s a form of psychological warfare even, I would say. What is really needed is that the entire conditions under which Gaza—Gazan people are made to exist on a day-to-day basis need to be gravely changed and altered, rather than just having a form of existence under all kinds of oppression, suppression, without really the exercise of basic human rights and dignity. Gazans deserve the right to live. And that’s the crucial change. It means opening up Gaza, enabling people to actually move across the borders, bringing in goods. At the current rate, just looking at the rebuilding of the homes and the housing units that have been destroyed—and it’s 18,000 currently, is the number, 17,000 or 18,000—it will take 18 years to rebuild, under the current restrictive measures, those homes. Think about the future of families and children under those conditions.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play a comment for you made by the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer last month.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: All civilian casualties are unintended by us, but actually intended by Hamas. They want to pile up as many civilian dead as they can, because somebody said they use—I mean, it’s gruesome. They use telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause. They want—the more dead, the better.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Benjamin Netanyahu saying that Hamas uses the “telegenically dead,” “the more dead, the better.” Pernille Ironside, head of UNICEF in Gaza?

PERNILLE IRONSIDE: The children I have met with are very real, and I can assure you that these are lives that have been shattered forever. They are ordinary children and families who truly only want to be able to live a normal—quote-unquote, “normal” life. How can we expect people to do that under these conditions, where they’re denied their basic human rights and dignity? You know, children need to be given a reason to believe that there is a better future. And at the moment, we’re on an extraordinarily slippery slope, where we’re going to end up with an entire population of young kids, people, who all they think about is hatred, intolerance, possible radicalism and extremism, unless they are given a more positive outlet.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Pernille Ironside, chief of UNICEF’s Gaza field office. We’ll be back with her in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. That music, “Palestinian Heritage” by Naseer Shamma. In the last 48 hours, nine more Palestinian children have died in Gaza. Our guest is Pernille Ironside, chief of UNICEF’s Gaza field office. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about the water situation in Gaza. It was already a profound problem before this offensive, but what has happened—we’re talking about now the most basic of human needs, is access to drinking water. What’s happened since the offensive?

PERNILLE IRONSIDE: So what’s happened is that there are a number of water wells, sewage pumping stations, sewage treatment plants and the Gaza power plant that have been struck by missiles and essentially rendered inoperable. So 1.5 million people out of 1.8 have not had consistent access to clean drinking water. There’s cross-contamination from the sewage pipes that are now leaking into the water system. There’s people who have been cut off for water for weeks in their communities. But also, trying to restore water trucking, when there’s been a steady stream of bombardment, is extraordinarily difficult. You know, UNICEF is providing drinking water through the installation of water points at communities, a voucher program that’s reaching right now 10,000 families. But, you know, the impact on infrastructure is so grave and vast that it’s extraordinarily difficult for any agency to cope with, let alone local water authorities, eight of whose technicians have been killed while on duty.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to British news anchor Jon Snow of Channel 4. When he returned from Gaza last month, he made this emotional on-air appeal.

JON SNOW: What I never knew is what I know now, which is that those people who live in Gaza are mainly the unbelievably young. The average age is 17. That means that about quarter of a million are under 10. There was one specific moment that stood out above all others, and that was penetrating the third floor of the Shifa Hospital, one of two floors dedicated to children. That’s where I met Maha, terribly crippled by shrapnel that had penetrated her spine. That’s where I saw this little two-and-a-half-year-old with panda-sized, huge, suppurating, round, panda-like wounds that almost prevented her eyes opening at all. They were the consequence of a broken skull and a fractured nose. I can’t get those images out of my mind. I don’t think you can either, because they’ve been everywhere. They are the essence of what is happening in Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: That is the report of Jon Snow of Channel 4 in Britain. He talked about Maha. Our guest, Pernille Ironside, just met Maha at the al-Shifa Hospital, Maha al-Sheikh Khalil, seven years old.


AMY GOODMAN: Tell us more about her, Pernille.

PERNILLE IRONSIDE: So, Maha has miraculously survived a really grotesque attack on her home. She has lost her parents. She’s lost four of her sisters. And currently she’s paralyzed beneath the neck and requires surgery in order to be able to maybe regain some mobility. She’s being looked after by the incredible team at al-Shifa emergency hospital and by her three aunts, who are also around her at her bedside right now. Those aunts, they themselves have large numbers of children. And, you know, when we look at Maha needing to have treatment abroad, even there, she doesn’t have somebody to go with her. She’s basically in a state of existence with trying to have the best support from what her family, with limited means, who themselves are under incredible pressure, can cope with. And Maha is not alone. She is one of the children—I’ve met other children at al-Shifa and elsewhere who both have very grave physical injuries, but, quite frankly, it’s the emotional scars that really will have the lasting impact on Gazan children and for whom we all, the entire international community, must unite in common humanity to address the situation in Gaza and provide some alleviation for children and hope.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what was happening before this last offensive in terms of psychological support to children who had been through the trauma of this continual on-and-off-again warring in the Gaza Strip?

PERNILLE IRONSIDE: Well, UNICEF has been—unfortunately, or fortunately, we’ve had to have a long-standing relationship with incredible teams of psychologists on the ground, Palestinian psychologists, who are all too familiar and experienced with providing that immediate relief and coping skills to families who have experienced incredible loss, and helping kids find some means of dealing with their situation. They will never recover. The loss of a family member or loved one is not something you get over. You learn to cope. And kids were already in this kind of fragile coping state, which is now just being added to.

AMY GOODMAN: I am haunted by something you just said earlier, that Israel is bombing this nation of—that is majority children.


AMY GOODMAN: More than a million of the 1.8 million are under 18. As we wrap up, the siege, that’s one of the core issues of the ceasefire that keeps ending because they can’t resolve this—as the head of UNICEF in Gaza, what does this siege mean, outside of the assault, that the Palestinians have lived with for years, the blockade?

PERNILLE IRONSIDE: You know, the conditions of restriction and closure and daily monitoring, the overhead drones that one can hear at any time of the day or night, it creates a climate of fear, of certainly that you’re being watched at all times, and that you really, as a child, that this is your—this is the limit of your world. You know, Palestinians are connected to what happens outside in the world through television, through the Internet. They’re the most literate people in the Middle East.

AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.

PERNILLE IRONSIDE: What we do now, as the international community, to bring justice and change in Palestine is crucial for the future of Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: Pernille Ironside, chief of UNICEF’s Gaza field office, thank you so much.

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