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Report from Rafah: UNICEF Decries Israel’s “War on Children” as Starvation & Deaths Mount in Gaza

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The Israeli military on Sunday announced a daily “tactical pause” in its attacks on Rafah to allow humanitarian relief to enter the Gaza Strip, after systematically blocking aid from reaching Palestinians in Gaza since October 7. While a full ceasefire is still vital, “any pause in the bombing is good news for children,” says UNICEF spokesperson James Elder, speaking to Democracy Now! from Rafah. “The physical and psychological exhaustion they face is almost impossible to capture,” he says, characterizing Israel’s offensive as “a war on children.”

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StoryMar 28, 2024As Gaza Faces Famine, Israel Cuts Ties with UNRWA and U.S. Halts Funding for Critical Aid Agency
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Gaza, where the United Nations and other organizations are issuing ever-dire warnings as Israel’s assault stretches into its ninth month. The head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned last week, quote, “A significant proportion of Gaza’s population is now facing catastrophic hunger and famine-like conditions.” The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, says over 50,000 children now require immediate medical treatment for acute malnutrition. Medical workers are struggling to treat sick and malnourished patients in Israel’s destruction of Gaza’s health infrastructure and water supply.

On Sunday, the Israeli military announced a daytime tactical pause in its attacks on Rafah to allow humanitarian aid to enter the strip, but the head of UNRWA says operationally nothing has changed in southern Gaza. Israel has been systematically blocking aid from reaching Palestinians in Gaza for the last eight months. Israeli forces have also targeted Palestinians seeking the scarce aid and have killed more aid workers than any war since the U.N. was formed.

Israeli forces have also killed Palestinians as they attempt to bring food home to their families, including last Wednesday, when troops fired at a group of fishermen in Gaza, killing two of them. That attack was witnessed by our next guest, UNICEF spokesperson James Elder, who’s joining us now from Rafah.

Before we get to that larger issue, can you describe what you saw? What happened to these fishermen, James Elder?

JAMES ELDER: Amy, we were on a mission to take, well, lifesaving medical and nutritional supplies for UNICEF to 10,000 children in the north. We had gone through all the processes. It’s very complicated. It’s detailed. We’ve seen far, far too much aid denied and restricted for people who are in such desperate, growing need. It’s about a 25-mile journey from where we were, Deir al-Balah, to the north, to Gaza City. Amy, it took us 13 hours. Eight hours of those were near checkpoints. In the end, there was a “who said/she said” on how our truck was enclosed. They thought it was a van. We waited. We waited. We waited. In the end, it was denied that access. We were unable to get those supplies to those 10,000 children.

As we waited, Amy, ironically, I had been talking to a colleague about the fishing industry, about, you know, this destruction of education, of healthcare, of housing, of agriculture. This colleague friend of mine explained how his father-in-law had a fishing business, and he showed me videos of when his fishing business, the boats, when they just went up in flames, when they were bombed or missiled, boats, water and, of course, fuel. And he showed me this. He explained his father-in-law had a stroke at this time.

So, I was engrossed watching these fishermen. This was just eight or 10 men in knee-deep water in the ocean or in the sea with a single net each. And I was looking at each. I’m thinking, “You were probably a university professor. You’re maybe an engineer,” watching, watching for hours and hours whilst we waited to get our aid.

Suddenly, there was a tank. This was very near the Israeli large military checkpoint. There was gunfire. Next thing, two of the fishermen just on the beach were on the sand. Now, I was luckily with other colleagues, World Health Organization, a paramedic. They immediately rang to the authorities to get us permission, those people with emergency medical experience, get us permission to get onto the beach to see the state of these two fishermen. That was denied. That access was denied. Half an hour later, the other fishermen, just so desperate to get to see their friends, their family — I’m not sure — in the end, we gave them body bags. They went. They brought them back. And that’s where I saw that one fisherman had been shot in the back, and one fisherman, still with a fishing net around his ankle, had been shot in the neck.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can put this into a bigger context, James Elder? If you can talk about what’s happening right now, the scale of the catastrophe that is Gaza right now, when it comes to hunger and famine, not to mention the killing of Palestinians, where, what, right now the number is over 37,000 killed, well over 15,000 children — probably the number much higher because we don’t know how many people are dead under the rubble?

JAMES ELDER: Well, as you say, Amy, look at that number of children. I don’t know what number — my executive director, I think, captured it very well to the Security Council many months ago, saying that the killing of children in Gaza and the destruction of Gaza cannot possibly bring peace to the Middle East. We are now at this terrifying time where it seems like it’s being normalized. There is nothing normal about another night here where the bombardments are relentless, the drones are relentless. You do not sleep, OK? Obviously, children get bombed, as well, but there is the psychological torment of that. That’s ongoing. Just before we started, I heard more fire here, more bombardments that will be relentless. So, 250 days, Amy, children have gone through this. The physical and psychological exhaustion they face is, yes, almost impossible to capture, because on top of that, you have a nutritional crisis like the Gaza Strip has never seen before. And that’s why we’re trying to deliver aid to the north.

You have a water desperation that we have not seen here, that, normally, 50 liters of water is a bare minimum per person. And the bare minimum, that’s to clean, to drink, to wash. We’re down to a couple of liters of water. It’s the middle of summer here. It’s sweltering heat. I looked at a thermometer in a tent the other day. It was 55 degrees Celsius. I don’t know what that is. It’s way above 100 Fahrenheit. Yes, people in Gaza are used to the summer. They’re used to summer in their own homes, with a cross breeze, with ceiling fans. Now they are in tents, side by side, sweltering on the sand. So, that lack of water and lack of food is not just playing into disease on those most vulnerable, those most vulnerable being children. It’s also now we just have sheer risk of dehydration.

So, from the skies, it is relentless. I was at a hospital just a couple of hours ago before speaking with you, European Hospital. Within a moment, I see Hala, 4 years old. She’s blind in one eye, after the family home was struck. Wahid has lost his arm and his leg, after he was asleep and he woke up in rubble. And Yasim, Yasim has lost his right arm. This is within a minute of seeing it. There are — I don’t know what it is now. I got numbers when I was here in November, Amy, a thousand children with amputations. I don’t know the number now. We should stop these numbers. We have to focus on the human story. But, of course, the scale — the scale is unprecedented. And as hard as it is to believe, it continues.

And, of course, people ask, “Is it worse now?” Of course it’s worse. It’s worse every day. It can’t not be. Today it will be a bombardment. Today will be more people without food and water. Tomorrow will be worse. It will continue to get worse until those with the power of the pen, those looking over this ceasefire, start to understand and start to care about the level of suffering the children and their families are enduring here.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned 55 degrees Celsius when you looked at the thermometer. That’s actually 131 degrees Fahrenheit. We’re talking to James Elder, UNICEF spokesperson, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund. He is joining us from Rafah, Gaza. You just said that you continue to hear explosions outside. So, can you talk about what this tactical pause is that the Israeli military surprisingly announced, kind of out of the blue, on Sunday, what exactly it means? It says around one emergency aid route in Rafah?

JAMES ELDER: Yes. I mean, look, any restriction in bombing, any pause in the bombing is good news for children. There are — most nights here, they’re almost sleepless nights, whether it’s the bombing or whether it’s the drones. The bombing is like, if it’s close — I thought I knew, Amy, what bombing sounded like. I had no idea. When it’s really close, it’s like someone banging pots next to your head. A drone is a lawnmower, and it’s relentless. There are attack drones, and there are surveillance drones. And there is more fire now. So, any restriction in bombing, any pause, whatever you want to call it, is good news for children.

But we have to wait and see what this will actually mean. This is a small portion of getting aid in through one part of the Gaza Strip. Now, to facilitate aid is good. But a much bigger picture than that, the responsibility of Israel as the occupying power is to enable aid to be distributed safely on the Gaza Strip. That’s not happening. Chaos is being sown, because there such high levels of desperation, because there is such a lack of security. As you said rightly, Amy, there are more United Nations colleagues having been killed in this war than at any time, at any time since the advent of the United Nations. So, whether this will mean smoother, faster, safer aid operations, we hope so. But what will really — for that to truly happen would be more crossings opening, many more crossings opening. We have been speaking about that, the secretary-general of the United Nations, for months and months and months. That’s one part of it.

The second part is, of course, just to just — well, we go back to a ceasefire. Ceasefire is flooding the Gaza Strip with aid, getting hostages home. Ceasefire will get hostages home. And a ceasefire would enable us to start to address the nutritional crisis. For example, Amy, UNICEF was treating 3,000 children with the most dangerous form of malnutrition here in Rafah, and then we had the military offenseive in Rafah, that we all begged not to happen but somehow feared would. That, quote-unquote, “limited military offensive,” limited offensive that led to a million people being displaced, it also meant that our stabilization center there, treating 3,000 children, was inoperable in a minute. Children getting treatment are suddenly — and they’re gone. Now we have to try and go back into those communities, back into these tented hellholes, to find these children, to find those families, because without that treatment, they will die. And Rafah crossing, which was the lifeline — Rafah crossing was the lifeline for humanitarian aid — has been closed for more than a month now.

So, there is such a constant war of words here. But we just need to look at evidence. Evidence is that humanitarian trucks coming in in May was half that of April. Evidence is there’s a fraction of routes open that should be. Land crossings are the most efficient and cost-effective way to get aid in. Evidence is that the pier is no longer functioning. Evidence is that we are catapulting, if you will, into a nutritional crisis. And the evidence is that as we try to deliver aid and as children try to be safe, bombardments continue.

AMY GOODMAN: You have talked about what’s happening in Gaza as a war on children. Earlier this month, U.N. added Israel to its so-called list of shame, a blacklist of nations and groups that violate the rights of children in armed conflicts. Other nations on the U.N. list of shame are Russia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Syria, Burma, Afghanistan, Haiti. U.N. also adding Hamas and Islamic Jihad to that list of shame. Can you explain practically what this means? And also, as you talk about children facing hunger — of course, adults, too — what are the long-term effects of this?

JAMES ELDER: Yeah, I think, three parts. UNICEF and the United Nations absolutely stands by that data and the robustness of that data. It is a secretary-general’s report, and I would have to leave it to their office to speak more to it. But, yes, we do, and we have for many months called this a war on children. And like everything here, we do that based on evidence. We don’t do that seeking a headline. We do that because of all the conflicts where UNICEF operates, or all the frontlines, from Afghanistan to Yemen to Ukraine to Syria, we have not seen the percentage of civilians injured, maimed, killed as high on children as here. That’s why. The evidence speaks to this being a war on children. And, yes, that is because there’s a large child population and a dense — it’s a dense population. It’s also because we have continuously seen an indiscriminate nature of bombings.

On Tuesday, when I was at Al-Aqsa Hospital in the middle area, how many families I spoke to? I speak to — and again, sometimes, Amy, I go into a hospital, and literally I — right? I’ve got to talk to the first person I see. And there are thousands of people. There are children on the floor needing attention, despite the best, brave, selfless efforts of doctors working 24 hours a day, who at the same time are thinking, “How do I get wood and water to my family tonight?” First family I saw was a little boy Ali. Ali was asleep in the third floor of his family home when a missile struck. Next thing, he’s in the rubble on the ground floor. I then learned that Ali’s mother was also in that bombing, that attack on the family home. I found her in the hospital. And I wanted to explain that I had found Ali, and so I thought I actually had good news for merely a second. I thought, in this darkness, I had something to share. In fact, she was aware that Ali was there, but she also explained that her two other children had been killed in that bomb attack. These are the — these are ongoing, last night, tonight. So, that’s the indiscriminate nature of this war, that continues. It continues.

Of the nutritional crisis, I’m sorry, you’ll have to repeat that last part of your question.

AMY GOODMAN: The effects, the long-term effects, of hunger on children?

JAMES ELDER: Yeah. Unfortunately, UNICEF has learned this because we operate north to south, south to east, on the — east to west, rather, around the world. They are many, and they worsen, just like trauma worsens. Nutritional status of a child, it’s the longer it is left unattended, the worse it gets. And in the youngest children, if we’re — obviously, the greatest risk is death. And a severely malnourished child is 10 times more likely to die from a common illness. And my goodness, there are common illnesses now here because of the deprivation of sanitation and water. But there are also risks just to mental development. There are great risks to physical growth and pyschological growth, mental development.

Now, that impact, long term, is on the society, is on their community, is on their income potential. All right? And that may sound like a long way off. It shouldn’t be. UNICEF is always looking at the whole age bracket of a child. And if we look here in Gaza, this young child population, any economist, any demographer will tell you, you get this right with a young child population. And it’s not hard. You get right training, the right skills, the right opportunity, and you have a demographic boom. You have the envy of aging populations. You get it wrong, and you have all the attendant risks of security and everything else that goes with it. And this is a paradigm example of getting it wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, James Elder, going back to that issue of a ceasefire, what exactly that would mean?

JAMES ELDER: It means everything, Amy. It means everything. There’s times my own voice, that I’ve heard myself and feel tired saying, much as what people must think. But when you’re in Gaza and you still feel that hope among people, the number of women — I was meeting a man just earlier near the water. And he explained he has moved eight times. Eight times he’s moved. And he’s well versed on all the Security Council resolutions in this current one. And his words to me were, “We must continue to hope. But this feels like our last hope.” And I understand that, the decay of the psychological state. People are just holding on. I’ve had many women say to me words to the effect of, “Well, my husband has been killed. My home was destroyed. I’ve lost the ability to feed my children. And I’ve lost my job. All I have left is hope.” So they are holding onto hope. But they’re also aware that some of them have lost count of how many of these resolutions there are.

But a ceasefire means, in the most simple sense, hostages go home. That torment ends. It means a mother will promise her child, as a mother said to me exactly these words, “I will be able to go to bed at night with my child and promise her she can wake up.” You can’t do that here. As many people have said to me, living or dying is luck. It is luck here, given the indiscriminate nature. So, a ceasefire, for those with the power — the military aims, whatever they are, have created this war on children. Those with the power on this ceasefire, they need — as I say, they need to understand the suffering here. And as many Gazans are saying, this does feel like their last hope.

AMY GOODMAN: James Elder, UNICEF spokesperson — UNICEF is the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund — joining us from Rafah, Gaza.

Next up, former President Trump just met with top Republicans at the Capitol for the first time since January 6th. We’ll get response from Democratic Congressmember Jamie Raskin, who served on the select committee to investigate the January 6th attack. We’ll also talk about the Supreme Court. And we’ll talk about Gaza. Stay with us.

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