As the ongoing crisis in my native Gaza has hit the headlines, I have found myself thinking of Gaza’s children who have been hard hit by the latest Israeli crackdown on protests. More than a 1,000 have been wounded and at least 15 killed, including an eight-month old baby.
The images I have been seeing bring me back to 2008, when I was working with Save the Children in Gaza during the 2008 Israeli offensive. I keep remembering little Hajer, a baby girl, who I held when she was just two days old.
Hajer’s mother was severely malnourished due to the blockade and limited food provisions and was worried her baby might not make it. We were able to help her access food aid and hygiene supplies and ensured both the mother and baby Hajer survived, but I keep wondering what kind of life that little girl has lived so far. Hajer must be ten years old now and has known nothing but the blockade and three Israeli offensives that have ravaged Gaza. I wonder what kind of opportunity she could ever have as a child, and a girl, born in Gaza.
Gaza has a population of 1.9 million people, of which 1.3 million are refugees or decedents of those forcibly displaced during what Palestinians call Nakba meaning “Catastrophe”, or otherwise known as the day Israel was established, 70 years ago.
Half of those in the Strip today are under the age of 18, and are living in what is in effect an open-air prison. Gaza has been under constant air, sea and land blockade for over a decade and it’s people are suffocating. Health and education facilities have completely deteriorated. Even life essentials such as food and water are scarce commodities. Travel permits are given under exceptional circumstances, like severe illness, only and often not even then.
Gaza’s children are not only deprived of their childhood but also their future. Most Palestinian children have lived through the brutalities of at least one offensive, and many know nothing else. But the vulnerability does not end there. As we have seen during the latest wave of protest, children who want noting more than to live in freedom and dignity, are being exposed to continuous danger and grave violations like killing and maiming. They have been repeatedly shot in the leg, arms, chest, and head. Hundreds have been hospitalized in recent weeks.
The impact on children has been traumatic. Parents speak about the severe distress their children are suffering. Emotional and physical scars that develop in childhood can haunt people for life. It’s horrifying to think that a four-year old in Gaza can easily talk about the difference between a F16 Fighter Jet and a helicopter just by hearing the sounds. At the same time, that same child will have so few spaces where they can escape their worries and feel safe. There are no playgrounds, no good school to attend and little future to look forward to.
Children grow up with only the bare minimum, without ever seeing the outside world or even their relatives who live elsewhere in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Those who do get the opportunity to study at university can’t actually achieve much or go on to pursue their dreams. They find themselves stuck in a vicious cycle of life under blockade, a life that doesn’t present further opportunities, development, jobs or basic human rights that we often take for granted here in Canada.
Hajer is not just a random child in Gaza. Hajer is all the children of Gaza – and these children need our help.
Despite the blockade, Save the Children is on the front line providing immediate humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable children. We will continue to address the long term development needs of children by implementing programs in education, child protection, economic opportunities and psychosocial support. As one of the world’s leading children’s rights organizations, Save the Children, has an responsibility to hold governments to account for their obligations to respect, protect and fulfil children’s rights as defined in the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child and other international agreements. No matter what the challenges, we will continue to do so in this dire situation and we will continue to provide hope, because without hope, there can be no future.
Osama Damo is the Middle East Program Manager for Save the Children in Canada. Osama is from Gaza where he worked for Save the Children for 7 years.