Amid Gaza's Ruins, Impact on Children Most 'Severe': UN Official

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Amid Gaza's Ruins, Impact on Children Most 'Severe': UN Official

Humanitarian and relief agencies warn that Gaza is on the "brink" of an international health crisis as both water and power infrastructure have been destroyed during Operation Protective Edge

"Those in Gaza who are children now will take their scars into adulthood, potentially shaping the trajectory of the conflict in years to come," writes Olivia Watson of DCI-Palestine. (Photo: Tijen Erol)

Israel's attack on Gaza will be felt most severely among the Palestinian children, a top United Nations official said on Tuesday.

Addressing a UN conference by phone, Pernille Ironside, who runs the UNICEF field office in Gaza, said the agency estimates that roughly 373,000 Palestinian children have had some kind of direct traumatic experience as a result of the attack and will require immediate psycho-social support. This is in addition to the 408 children reported as killed and the thousands left wounded after three weeks of heavy shelling by Israeli forces.

"Public health conditions in Gaza are getting worse by the hour, and with water running out the threat of disease is spreading fast. The ceasefire alone will not be enough to end Gaza's suffering—the blockade of Gaza must also end if there is to be real recovery and lasting peace for both Israelis and Palestinians.” –Nishant Pandey, head of Oxfam in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel

"How can a society cope with this? This is a deep, deep, deep wound," Ironside said.

In a piece published in +972 Magazine on Tuesday, Olivia Watson, advocacy officer with Defense for Children International-Palestine—which is independently verifying all child-deaths in the conflict—writes that for even those children "who manage to escape physical injury, the psychological effects of this latest operation will be hidden, but severe and resounding."

"Many have lost one or both parents, or other family members. Some have lost their entire extended families," Watson continues. "All have experienced violence, fear and instability at close quarters."

Relief workers who have spent time with Palestinian children after the wars in 2008-9 and 2012 say that children who lost family members exhibit real physical manifestations of their trauma including: night terrors, inability to sleep, loss of bladder control, as well as refusing to eat, and aversion to eye contact or physical touch.

Danny Muller, a coordinator with the Middle East Children's Alliance, told Common Dreams that in addition to the direct trauma of losing a loved one, children also experience more indirect trauma like the loss of a playground, a mosque, or a home.

Muller explained that because of the ongoing blockade and repeated attacks by Israel, children in Palestine sustain "ongoing" traumatic stress. The blockade has made families in Palestine food insecure for years, Muller said, as he cited a consistent lack of access to drinking water and high rates of unemployment, "all of which directly impacts the level of safety and security they feel in their homes and communities."

"The children have an incredible level of fear," Muller said.

After a 72-hour ceasefire commenced on Tuesday, delegations are meeting in Cairo to negotiate a more long-term agreement. The pause gave relief organizations the chance to assess some of the widespread infrastructural damage in Gaza.

According to Mufeed al-Hasayneh, the Palestinian Minister of Public Works, Israel has caused over $5 billion dollars in damage to homes and infrastructure in the Gaza strip. Al-Hasayneh estimates that some 10,000 homes have been completely destroyed, and 30,000 homes partially destroyed.

On Tuesday, Oxfam International warned that Gaza is on the brink of an international health crisis after recent bombing destroyed wells, pipelines and reservoirs, leaving water dangerously scarce while remaining reserves are contaminated with raw sewage. According to the group, 15,000 tons of solid waste now fills the streets, water pumping stations are on the verge of running out of fuel, and many neighborhoods have been without power for days.

“We’re working in an environment with a completely destroyed water infrastructure," said Nishant Pandey, head of Oxfam in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel. "Public health conditions in Gaza are getting worse by the hour, and with water running out the threat of disease is spreading fast. The ceasefire alone will not be enough to end Gaza's suffering—the blockade of Gaza must also end if there is to be real recovery and lasting peace for both Israelis and Palestinians.”

With insufficient water for hygiene, Ironside added that she's seen "children coming out of these shelters with scabies, lice, all kinds of communicable diseases." Also, she noted that the lack of clean drinking water may lead to more child deaths, particularly among those under five years-old who are most susceptible.

Echoing Pandey's call for an end to the blockade, Ironside added that rebuilding in Gaza will not happen if conditions remain as they were before. "The amount of time and resources just to coordinate one bag of cement are astounding. Is this where the resources of the United Nations should be placed, on the coordination and approval of minutia?"

UNICEF says the cost of sheltering families whose homes had been destroyed will amount to $40-50 million in the next year, with the total reconstruction costing "hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars."

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