Big Issues

Children Have Become Too Weak To Cry In Gaza

gaza aid children UNICEF world central kitchen

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Early this month, the killing of seven aid workers in Gaza by Israeli drones created an international outcry. 

Six were international citizens, including Australian Lalzawmi “Zomi” Frankcom. The seventh was a Palestinian aid worker, Saifeddin Issam Ayad Abutaha. They worked for World Central Kitchen (WCK), a charity aiming to send “hundreds of aid trucks to communities in desperate need of food”. The group had just delivered 100 tonnes of food in central Gaza. WCK founder José Andrés said their cars had been “systematically” targeted just south of Deir al-Balah, despite the route being pre-approved by the Israel Defense Forces. 

The deaths of the aid workers — 196 have been killed in Gaza — has prompted the strongest condemnation from world leaders we have seen in the conflict thus far. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said he demanded “full accountability” from Israel during his phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Penny Wong, foreign affairs minister, said that if Netanyahu doesn’t change his course of action, “Israel will continue to lose support”. Israeli officials said the drone strikes were a “grave mistake” and Netanyahu promised a transparent investigation. 

According to Gaza’s Ministry of Health, over 33,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since October 7, when Hamas attacked Israel. The Israeli death toll still stands at 1,200. There are 133 hostages being held in Gaza, though it is unclear how many are still alive. 

The deaths of the aid workers struck a serious blow to the ability of organisations to provide crucial support to the civilian population of Gaza, which is on the “brink of famine”. WCK suspended all operations until further notice, saying that “this wasn’t only an attack against WCK, but an attack on humanitarian organisations showing up in the most dire of situations”. “We will not allow food to become a weapon of war,” they added. Other aid groups have also paused operations in Gaza since the attacks, including American Near East Refugee Aid and Project HOPE. 

To get a better sense of what the situation is like on the ground for both Palestinians and aid workers, Junkee spoke to UNICEF Spokesperson, Tess Ingram, who is currently in Rafah. 

Junkee: How has the deaths of the seven World Central Kitchen workers affected, on a practical level, the delivery of aid to Gaza?

Tess Ingram: The deaths of Zomi and her brave colleagues is an absolutely senseless tragedy. It should not have happened, it is against the rules of war. And it comes after nearly 200 other humanitarian aid workers [have been] killed in Gaza, and of course a reported 32,000 Palestinians. This has to stop. 

The World Central Kitchen was a key player in food distribution in Gaza so their pause will no doubt have an impact on the people of Gaza, who are on the brink of famine. UNICEF is continuing to the best of its ability to deliver lifesaving supplies to children and families in Gaza, including medical supplies, treatments for malnutrition, clothing and blankets, and supplies to repair damaged water supplies.

Has there been a palpable emotional impact among the people you work with?

I didn’t know the World Central Kitchen team members personally, but it comes as a shock because even in war zones there are meant to be protections in place for humanitarian workers such as those from World Central Kitchen who lost their lives trying to help others survive. 

This would understandably make anyone nervous about being in Gaza, even working in an aid worker capacity. Is there a chance it has strengthened your organisation’s resolve?

Gaza is the most dangerous place on Earth to be a humanitarian worker at the moment, and the most dangerous place to be a child. For more than seven decades UNICEF has been resolute that it would be there for children before, during and after emergencies, even in times of war. UNICEF was operating in Gaza before October 7 and we will remain for as long as children need us. We have to remember that when a place is dangerous for us, it is even more dangerous for the children we are here to serve. That’s why we are here doing what we do.

How close is famine to taking hold in Gaza?

Famine is imminent. There is no doubt about it. Children are already starving to death, with truckloads of aid just kilometres away. The tragic thing about a declaration of famine is that for that to happen there already will have been thousands of children suffering with severe acute malnutrition. It is an unbearable thing to witness children’s faces become gaunt, become too weak to cry, and their bodies shrink to their bones. People here are desperate for food, and the lack of clean water means that diarrhoeal disease is everywhere, so even if they can find food, they soon become sick. 

Everywhere our teams go, people of Gaza put their hands to their mouths as a way of asking us for food. There is simply not enough to go around and not enough nutritious food to sustain lives. Restrictions on the delivery of aid to Gaza, and the distribution of that aid across Gaza has played a huge role in this. We need to flood the Gaza strip with food and malnutrition treatments with urgency.

Given the outrage around the world over the mounting casualties in Gaza, especially recently, do you anticipate a turning of the tide?

UNICEF has made repeated calls for a ceasefire, and for the safe return of all hostages. Too many innocent people have died and suffered already. You have families in Israel who six months on are still waiting for loved ones to come home, including children, and families in Gaza enduring this terrible war. We keep reiterating those calls and we remain hopeful. How many more civilian lives will be lost until there’s a ceasefire? The guns need to fall silent. The children need peace.

Netanyahu has announced Israel will “temporarily” allow more aid to get through the northern Gaza border, how much of a difference do you think that will make? 

The north has been chronically cut off from aid so any aid that can get to that region will make a difference. Throughout Gaza more aid is desperately needed and there are existing entry points such as at the northern border which we have used before the war. Children in the north are dying of severe acute malnutrition, just minutes away from this northern crossing, so we need to ensure the announcement becomes reality. Erez must be opened quickly and at scale, function properly and be sustained for as long as it is required.

Image: Getty