Children in Gaza being ‘unequivocally failed’ by UK government, aid group says

Save the Children official calls on Britain to do more to protect children in the besieged enclave

Harriet Williamson
Friday 24 May 2024 13:14 BST
Palestinians line up for food aid in Rafah
Palestinians line up for food aid in Rafah (AP)

Civilians in Gaza have been “unequivocally failed” by the UK government’s inaction in the face of Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza, aid organisation Save the Children has told The Independent.

With the conflict in Gaza in its eighth month, more than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed according to health officials in the besieged enclave. More than half are women and children. Thousands more are feared buried under the rubble.

Save the Children’s senior adviser on conflict, Liz Bradshaw, told The Independent that there has been a “shameful failure by the UK government” when children in Gaza are facing “the most dangerous and dire situation for children anywhere in the world”.

The government continues to licence arms sales to Israel, although ministers have said their contribution is "relatively small" at £42m in 2002, the last figures available.

The foreign secretary, David Cameron, said recently that he is “not really interested” in halting the sale of weapons to Israel.

Ms Bradshaw condemned the foreign secretary’s responses as “dismissive” and stressed that “while UK arms to Israel may be low volume, they are high impact”.

“They include 15 per cent of the parts of the F35 fighter jets that are being used by Israeli forces,” she continued.

The Israeli military is currently involved in an offensive in Rafah, a city on Gaza's southern border, where around a million people have been sheltering. The main Rafah crossing which borders Egypt has been seized by Israeli forces and completely closed since 8 May, making delivery of aid through that route impossible. Israel's bombardment of Gaza was triggered by the Hamas attack inside Israel on 7 October during which around 1,200 were killed and another 250 taken hostage.

Around 600,000 people have already fled Rafah, where violence is expected to intensify in the coming days and weeks. Among them is 22-year-old Haitham Shamlakh, who left Rafah for Deir al Balah in central Gaza with seven members of his family, including his nine-year-old brother and three younger sisters, aged three, 14 and 17.

Haitham and his family are currently living in a tent after their home was destroyed by by an airstrike. He told The Independent that life is very difficult due to “bombing, starvation and the spread of disease”.

Haitham was studying nursing at Al Aqsa University and said, via translation from UK-based friend Yomna Amer, that he “wanted to work in healthcare in any capacity” and was drawn to nursing by the “humanity aspect” of healthcare.

Haitham’s daily routine now revolves around queuing for hours to collect contaminated water for drinking. His family are forced to burn “old clothes, nylon and plastic” as well as wood to cook over. His younger siblings are “scared and stressed”. Even the “dropping of a cup” frightens them to the point of experiencing panic attacks.

The severity of trauma that children and young people in Gaza have been subjected to is a major concern for NGOs like Save the Children.

Ms Bradshaw explained that children in Gaza are at immediate physical risk – “from horrific blast injuries caused by the use of explosive weapons in intensely dense populated areas, like Rafah, or from amputations, leaving them in agonising pain” – and at humanitarian risk from being repeatedly displaced “in some cases, four or five, six times condensed into ever smaller areas, where frankly, there just simply aren't the conditions for that number of people to survive”.

She stressed that every single child in Gaza is in need of mental health support and will suffer “lifelong” psychological scars from what they have witnessed.

Analysis by Save the Children published in 2022 found that children in Gaza were already experiencing an acute mental health crisis, driven by 15 years of Israeli blockade, starting in 2007.

Ms Bradshaw also identified a “broader issue of consistency” around the UK’s commitment to protecting civilians and upholding international humanitarian law, which the government says is key to its foreign policy.

“The UK speaks in very powerful terms about protection of civilians in other parts of the world like Ukraine so why are we not seeing the same level of commitment and concern in relation to Palestinian children in Gaza?

“It’s pretty abject stuff. We hear a lot about the deep concern that they have, but frankly, their deep concern is meaningless to children in Gaza. And it's meaningless to our staff who are desperately battling against the odds to help children. We need action, not words from this government, and it's long, long overdue.”

For Haitham in Gaza, he wants people in the West to “see and hear our pain”. But even in the face of so much destruction and violence, he remains hopeful.

“I want the war to end, to return to our home even though it has been destroyed so we can get on with our lives and live like normal people.”

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