Gaza's Children: Trapped in a cycle of suffering

This is a summary of what was said by UNICEF Spokesperson James Elder – to whom quoted text may be attributed - at today's press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva

26 March 2024
Gaza Strip. A family cook a meal outside near piles of rubble from destroyed buildings.
UNICEF/UNI501984/Al-Qattaa

GAZA, 26 March 2024 – “Today I would like to speak about two major issues that people here in Gaza say are central to their survival. The safety of those in Rafah, and aid delivery.

“Today Rafah is unrecognizable because of the congestion, and tents on street corners and sandy plots. People sleep in the streets, in public buildings, in any other available empty space. The global standards for humanitarian emergencies say there should be a maximum of 20 people using one toilet. In Rafah, there is approximately one toilet for every 850 people. For showers, it’s four times that number - one shower for every 3600 people. This is a hellish disregard for basic human needs and dignity.

“Those same standards say people need 15 litres of water each, daily, and an absolute minimum of three litres just to survive. When I was here in November, families and children in the Gaza Strip were relying on three litres or less of water per person per day. Today, on average, households surveyed had access to less than one litre of safe water per person per day.

“Neighbouring Khan Yunis is also unrecognizable, though for a different reason – it barely exists anymore. In my 20 years with the United Nations, I have never seen such devastation. Just chaos and ruin, with rubble and debris scattered in every single direction. Utter annihilation.

"Moving around those streets, I was overwhelmed by loss.

“Which takes us back to Rafah. And the endless talk of a large-scale military operation in Rafah. Rafah is a city of children. 600,000 girls and boys there. A military offensive in Rafah? “Offensive” is the right word. Rafah - home to some of Gaza’s last remaining hospitals, shelters, markets and water systems.

“And then there is the north. Yesterday I was again in Jabalia. Tens of thousands of people crowd the streets, placing their hands to their mouths - that universal sign for hunger.

“When I came into the Gaza Strip a week ago, there were hundreds of trucks with lifesaving humanitarian aid, waiting to get to people in urgent need, but on the wrong side of the border. Hundreds of UN/INGO trucks are currently backlogged waiting to enter Gaza.

“Remembering, last week’s Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) noted famine is imminent in northern Gaza. Gaza now has the largest percentage of a population, anywhere, to receive its most severe rating since the body began reporting in 2004.

“Before this war, child wasting in the Gaza Strip was rare with less than one per cent of children under 5 years of age acutely malnourished. Today one in three children under 2 years are acutely malnourished. Clearly, the north needs massive amounts of food and nutrition treatments, urgently. But let’s be clear – our efforts to provide that aid are being hampered.

“There is an existing old crossing point, Erez, that could be used that is 10 minutes from those facing famine. 10 minutes. Open that and we could turn this humanitarian crisis in the north around in a matter of days. But it remains closed.

“Between 1 - 22 March, one-quarter of 40 humanitarian aid missions to northern Gaza were denied. UNRWA is now blocked from delivering food to the north, and yet 50% of food going to the north was delivered by UNRWA.

“Let’s be clear: Lifesaving aid is being obstructed. Lives are being lost. Dignity is being denied.

“The deprivation, the forced desperation, means despair pervades the population. And people's nerves are shattered amid unrelenting attacks.

“People often ask if there is still hope. Everything is at extremes here, and that question is no different. On one hand, a mother will tell me that she’s lost loved ones, her home and her ability to regularly feed her children; all she has left is hope. Then yesterday, UNICEF sat with adolescents, several of whom said, they were so desperate for their nightmare to end, that they hoped to be killed.

“The unspeakable is regularly said in Gaza. From teenage girls hoping they are killed; to being told a child is the last survivor from their entire family. Such horror is no longer unique here.

“Amid it all, so many brave, generous and tireless Palestinians continue to support one another. And sister UN agencies and UNICEF continue. For UNICEF, we persist for every child. Water, protection, nutrition, and shelter. UNICEF is here.

“As we heard yesterday: the ceasefire must be substantive, not symbolic. The hostages must go home. The people of Gaza must be allowed to live.

“In the three months between my visits, every horrific number rose dramatically. Gaza has shattered humanity's records for its darkest chapters. Humanity must now urgently write a different chapter.”

Media contacts

Ammar Ammar
Regional Chief of Advocacy and Communication
UNICEF Middle East and North Africa Regional Office
Tel: 00962791837388
Tess Ingram
UNICEF New York
Tel: +1 934 867 7867

Additional resources

Gaza Strip. A boy walks over the rubble of his destroyed home in Gaza City.

Additional resources for media 

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