Children in Gaza ‘paper thin’ due to malnutrition – as pressure intensifies for ceasefire deal

Aid workers on the ground say action is needed now, as Israel says UN demand for a truce has damaged negotiations

Bel Trew
Chief International Correspondent
Tuesday 26 March 2024 21:18 GMT
Palestinian children wait to receive food in Rafah
Palestinian children wait to receive food in Rafah (Reuters)

United Nations officials and aid workers on the ground in Gaza have warned of “paper thin” children and a “cruel death by famine” within the besieged territory – as international pressure mounts to hammer out a ceasefire during fraught talks taking place in Qatar.

After months of infighting, the UN Security Council passed a resolution on Monday calling for an immediate truce.

Hamas has rejected the latest proposal for a ceasefire deal as it wants any truce to lead to an end to the war. Israel says it is willing to consider only a temporary pause in the fighting.

After six months of war, aid workers say time is running out for 1.1 million Palestinians who are either on the cusp of famine or already experiencing such conditions.

In Gaza, Unicef spokesperson James Elder described seeing “paper thin” children in a hospital in the north and incubators full of underweight babies from malnourished mothers.

“Lifesaving aid is being obstructed. Lives are being lost,” he said. “I saw children whose malnutrition state was so severe, skeletal.”

Speaking to The Independent from the European Gaza Hospital near Khan Younis – a city that has been the focus of one of Israel’s most ferocious ground assaults – veteran humanitarians said the situation was “beyond comprehension”.

“The only words to use are ‘paper thin’. There are children and women with literally no flesh on them, which only complicates the recovery process when they are injured,” said Arvind Das, head of the Gaza team for the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

He told The Independent that he and his colleagues would normally administer supplements and intravenous fluids to the malnourished, “but we had none to give”.

A Palestinian man retrieves belongings from the site of an Israeli strike on a house, in Rafah, southern Gaza (Reuters)

Dr Konstantina Ilia Karydi, an anaesthetist working with the EMT at the hospital, called the situation “unimaginable”. “This hospital had an original capacity of just 200 beds, and at the moment it has expanded to 1,000 beds,” she said. “There are around 22,000 people that have been displaced from other parts of Gaza sheltering in the corridors and in tents inside the hospital.”

Dr Husam Basheer, an orthopaedic surgeon there, said supplies were so low they sometimes lacked gauze for surgery.

Mr Das, who has spent decades manning emergency responses in Afghanistan and Syria as well as in South Sudan, Sudan, Central African Republic and Iraq, said the “catastrophe” in Gaza right now is beyond anything he has ever seen.

He warned that, even if a ceasefire was in place, there would need to be an immediate opening up of all access points to Gaza to handle the “unprecedented” crisis.

“I thought I had seen everything, that I had seen the worst, but not until now,” he told The Independent, adding that his “heart was breaking”.

“The situation is rapidly collapsing. I have not seen such a crisis like this anywhere else in the world. The war must stop immediately and in a sustained way. We do not have time to lose. This is a complete failure of humanity.”

UN agencies have blamed Israel for restricting aid to Gaza, labelling it a possible war crime – an accusation vehemently denied by Israel.

There appears to be no end in sight for the war, which erupted in October when Hamas militants launched a bloody attack on southern Israel, killing around 1,200 people and taking around 250 hostages, 134 of whom remain inside the besieged enclave.

Since then, Palestinian medics in the Hamas-run territory say Israel’s unprecedented bombardment of the 42km-long strip has killed more than 32,000 Palestinians, the vast majority of them women and children.

The fighting has left much of the Gaza Strip in ruins, displaced most of its residents, and created widespread hunger.

Palestinians evacuate from Gaza City in northern Gaza (AFP/Getty)

On Tuesday, an expert told the UN’s Human Rights Council that she believed Israel’s actions amounted to genocide, and called on countries to immediately impose sanctions and an arms embargo.

“I find that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the threshold indicating the commission of the crime of genocide against Palestinians as a group in Gaza has been met,” Francesca Albanese, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in the Occupied Territories, said in Geneva.

Israel’s diplomatic mission in Geneva, which did not attend the session, rejected her findings. “Instead of seeking the truth, this special rapporteur tries to fit weak arguments to her distorted and obscene inversion of reality,” it said.

Israel also categorically denies “strangling aid” to Gaza, despite claims from several UN aid agencies that Israel is using hunger as a weapon.

But pressure is mounting for more aid access routes into Gaza to be opened. At the moment there are two land crossings open in the south of Gaza, and none in the north – where civilians rely on dangerous airdrops and the rare delivery of aid that has been driven up from the south.

Mr Das described the IRC’s medical teams working in hospitals overflowing with patients, and said that there are 30,000 displaced people under heavy shelling from Israeli tanks.

The group said that, since 7 October, the Israeli military has conducted more than 400 attacks on healthcare facilities and personnel in Gaza, which means every single hospital has been affected.

Citing the Palestinian health ministry, they said that at least 340 healthcare workers have been killed and more than 160 others have been detained.

There have also been reports of allegations that healthcare workers have been subjected to torture. Israel denies targeting civilians and medical staff – and also denies allegations of torture.

Mr Das said that in the centre of Gaza, in Deir al-Balah, he visited a shelter for the internally displaced, which before the war was a centre for vocational training and was meant to hold just 500 people.

He found it packed with 80,000 people inside and 30,000 people outside.

“There was one toilet for every 700 people. Each person had just a 1.5-metre square space – women were compelled to deliver their babies in that.”

He said there were outbreaks of hepatitis and other viral diseases and that deadly dehydration and malnourishment were now common.

Humanitarian aid falls through the sky towards the Gaza Strip after being dropped from an aircraft (Reuters)

On Tuesday, the UN’s humanitarian office, OCHA, called for Israel to revoke an apparent ban on food deliveries to northern Gaza by UNRWA, which is also the largest UN agency operating and delivering aid.

Israel said on Monday that it would stop working with UNRWA in Gaza, blaming the aid agency for perpetuating the conflict. It has accused 12 of UNRWA’s 13,000 members of staff of taking part in Hamas’s attack.

The agency said Israel had told it that it would no longer approve its food convoys to northern Gaza, and that such requests had been denied since 21 March. UNRWA also said that it only had sufficient funds to run its operations until the end of May, after many donors paused their funding.

“The decision must be revoked,” OCHA spokesperson Jens Laerke told a UN briefing in Geneva. “You cannot claim to adhere to these international provisions of law when you block UNRWA food convoys.”

Meanwhile, talks for a truce are limping on in Doha, despite initial reports that they might break down over Hamas’s demand for an end to the war and Israel’s fury at the UN resolution calling for a ceasefire.

The resolution, which calls for the release of all hostages held in Gaza but does not predicate the ceasefire on it, only passed after Israel’s closest ally, the US, abstained from voting.

Since then, Hamas has rejected the latest proposal, saying it will hold on to the hostages until Israel agrees to a more permanent ceasefire, withdraws its forces from Gaza, and releases hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including top militants.

Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz told Army Radio on Tuesday that the resolution was to blame for emboldening Hamas by signalling that international pressure would end the war without the militant group having to make any concessions.

Benjamin Netanyahu – who in a rage even cancelled an Israeli delegation to Washington – said it proved that Hamas is not interested in continuing negotiations towards a deal.

For weeks, the sides have been discussing a potential truce of around 42 days, during which around 40 Israeli hostages would be released in return for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.

Israel says it is willing to consider only a temporary pause in the fighting, while Hamas wants any deal to lead to an end to the war.

Mr Netanyahu's office said that Hamas had made “delusional” demands, which it said showed that the Palestinians were not interested in a deal. Hamas has accused Israel of stalling at the talks while it carries out its military offensive.

UK foreign office minister Andrew Mitchell joined world leaders in welcoming the UN resolution calling for a ceasefire as a “significant step”, which the UK government was focused on making sure was “implemented as quickly as possible”.

Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, described it as a “turning point” in efforts to stop the fighting in Gaza.

Mr Das said the fighting had to stop immediately and that there must be an immediate opening of access points into Gaza to avert the worst disaster.

“This is a stain on humanity. No matter what your politics, it is too painful to see women and children and incidents of people dying and suffering like this. I have not seen this before.”

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