Children bear the brunt of the conflict

Children holding buckets scramble for food handouts in Rafah, southern Gaza
Palestinians, many of them children, crowd together as they wait for food distribution in Rafah, southern Gaza (crossing (image: Hatem Ali/AP Photo/picture alliance)

While Hamas has released the majority of its child hostages taken on 7 October, it is believed that two remain in captivity. Meanwhile, thousands of Palestinian children are suffering under Israel's ongoing siege and renewed bombardment of Gaza

By Tania Kraemer

On 7 October, as Hamas murdered people in areas around the border with Gaza, they did not spare children and young people from being killed and kidnapped. One of the militants captured after the attack gave a harrowing account to Israeli authorities of one house in which they had heard children.

"We heard kids crying from inside one of the safe rooms," he said, according to the account. "We then shot into the room until everything went silent."

Until recently, Hamas, a militant group identified as a terrorist organisation by the European Union, the United States, Germany and many other countries, was holding thirty-eight children and teenagers as hostages, the youngest being a 9-month-old baby at the time of the kidnapping, according to Israeli media reports. 

The attack also left twenty-one kids orphaned, according to Israel's Ministry of Welfare and Social Affairs. Sixteen of them had both parents murdered, two were children of single mothers who were killed and another three lost one parent, with the other being kidnapped or declared "missing".

Soft teddy bears with their eyes covered and showing signs of injury are displayed on a Tel Aviv street
Following the October 7 attack, Hamas took thirty-eight children and teenagers hostage, the youngest just 9 months old. Most were released during a recent ceasefire. Two children, along with their mothers, are believed still in captivity (image: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Severe toll on children in southern Israel

The children living in southern Israel are also suffering. Sapir Fischer-Turgeman is a mother of two from the city of Ashkelon, a coastal town near Gaza. She completed her compulsory military service as a communications officer in the IDF in 2015 and related how her children's behaviour has changed since the conflict began.

"We noticed one of our kids is much more aggressive and impatient," she said, despite her and her partner's best efforts to keep the kids as protected as possible from the flow of information about the fighting.

Other parents in Israel have said their children are not willing to sleep in their beds out of fear. One 8-year-old child who survived the massacre can only fall asleep while under her bed.

"It's hard for them to stay at home the whole time, but there is no choice as there are barely any safe areas to protect ourselves from rockets on the streets and near playing grounds in Ashkelon," said Fischer-Turgeman.

The story of 12-year-old Liel Hetsroni is likely to stay in Israel's collective memory for years to come. Her family has buried some of her personal items like clothes and her favourite toys in place of her body, despite her death not being officially confirmed.

"No one survived from the place they were in. As a secular family, it is not that important to us to wait for the official confirmation," one of her relatives told Israeli media. Over 40 days after the attack, her body still has not been identified.

For children in Gaza, 'life has become a living hell'

Hind Wishah, her husband and three children left the northern part of the Gaza Strip at the beginning of November. The area has been under intense Israeli air bombardment and heavy fighting between Israeli ground forces and Palestinian militants for weeks. Her daughter Salma is 11, and the two young boys, Mohammed and Majid, are 9 and 4 years old, respectively.

"Our life has become a living hell in every sense of the word. My children were screaming constantly. I cried with them, sometimes screaming alongside," she said on a shaky phone line from Rafah, a city in the south of Gaza where the family is seeking shelter. "The fear of death looms over us every moment."

During their last week at home in Gaza City, the family had to ration the little water and food supplies they had left. Her children, Wishah said, are the most precious things in her life.

"Salma often asks, 'If I die, what will happen to my belongings? Will they come with me to heaven?'" Being unable to provide safety and security to a child is the most painful experience for a parent, Wishah added.

"They endured a month of terror and fear that will linger in their memories. I'm grateful to God that we are still alive, and my children are safe, but we yearn for someone to rescue us from this profound hell and lead us to an ending that will bring us back to our destroyed home."

'Gaza is becoming a graveyard for children'

Wishah is not alone with her experience – tens of thousands of Palestinian parents in Gaza are dealing with the same situation. More than 6,600 children have reportedly been killed, with thousands more reported injured, according to figures from the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza last week. These numbers have not been independently verified. 

Gaza has a young population: nearly half (47.3%) of the 2.2 million residents are under the age of 18, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. So far, an estimated 1.5 million residents in Gaza have been displaced by the war, among them at least 700,000 children, according to UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund.

Gaza's youngsters are used to dealing with hardships and military escalation. Since 2007, Gaza has been under a strict land and sea blockade by Israel and partially by Egypt, after the Hamas militant group took power from the Palestinian Authority.

Israel has strictly controlled the movement of people and goods in and out of the territory, effectively isolating it from the rest of the world. And for many minors, this is the fifth time they have had to endure a war. And it is the worst so far.

"Gaza is becoming a graveyard for children. Hundreds of girls and boys are reportedly being killed or injured every day," said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in early November.

After a visit to Gaza on 15 November, UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell warned in a statement that "the parties to the conflict are committing grave violations against children; these include killing, maiming, abductions, attacks on schools and hospitals, and the denial of humanitarian access – all of which UNICEF condemns."

She added that many children are missing and believed to be buried under the rubble, "the tragic result of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Meanwhile, newborn babies requiring specialised care died in one of Gaza's hospitals as power and medical supplies run out," she added in the statement.

People search through buildings, destroyed during Israeli air raids on the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City
Following a visit to Gaza, UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell stated that "the parties to the conflict are committing grave violations against children; these include killing, maiming, abductions, attacks on schools and hospitals, and the denial of humanitarian access" (image: Bashar Taleb/APA Images via ZUMA Press/picture alliance)

Nearly two months into the war people are still having to fend for themselves, with only limited help on the way. Israel kept its border crossings shut following the terror attacks on 7 October. A few trucks with international aid have been able to cross from Egypt through the Rafah crossing, especially during the seven-day ceasefire. But that meagre flow of supplies has now dwindled once more to an unreliable trickle.

As if dealing with the most urgent daily necessities, such as finding nutritious food, clean drinking water and a functioning toilet were not enough, Rania Mushtasha also fears the immense impact this war is having on her children.

"The children can't attend school, meet friends, or even connect over the Internet, which is unavailable. Children are the most affected by the war, losing their childhood and the familiar aspects of life, living in constant fear amid terrifying scenes," said the 46-year-old mother by phone, adding that her kids can only sleep if they are close to their parents.

The family of seven used to live in the Shijaiyah area in the east of Gaza City. They had to leave their homes early in the war and have moved twice since. Now they are staying with relatives in the town of Deir al-Balah, in the southern Gaza Strip. 

"When we hear news on the radio, especially my eldest daughter Rana asks, 'Will this happen to us, too? I don't want to die.' It's challenging to comfort her when she sees fear in my eyes and witnesses me crying due to bombings, fear and the deteriorating conditions," said Mushtasha.

"My young child frequently asks why this war is different and when it will end," she added. "I struggle to find an answer, hoping it will end soon."

Tania Kraemer & Felix Tamsut & Hazem Balousha

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