Gaza’s children face catastrophe as death toll nears 4,000, UN warns

Israeli bombs hit school being used as a shelter while warning comes that children form 40% of fatalities

The UN has warned of a “catastrophic” situation for children in Gaza, as Israeli bombs hit a school being used as a shelter and landed outside a hospital, and Israel came under mounting pressure over the civilian suffering caused by its campaign.

More than 40% of the dead in Gaza after nearly four weeks of war were children, the UN said, with 3,900 reported child victims, and another 1,250 missing and presumed buried under bombed buildings. With little rescue machinery, and hospitals overcrowded and running out of supplies, the chances of survival for those trapped in rubble are painfully low.

“Women, children and newborns in Gaza are disproportionately bearing the burden” of a month of fighting in the tiny territory, agencies supporting children, women, health services and Palestinian refugees said in a joint statement.

Israel declared war on Hamas on 7 October, after fighters broke through a border fence into Israel and massacred 1,400 people – mostly civilians in their homes and at a dance party. Since then it has pounded Gaza with an unprecedented number of airstrikes and encircled Gaza City.

The number of children killed in nearly a month of fighting dwarfs the total recorded by the UN for years of conflict in Gaza before that. Between 2008, the first year UN statistics are available, and September 2023, a total of 859 boys and girls were killed by airstrikes and fighting inside Gaza. Over the last 29 days, an average of 130 have been killed each day.

The casualty figures for October and November are provided by Gaza’s health authorities, which are controlled by Hamas, but the UN has done its own investigations into deaths in past conflicts and has found figures from authorities in Gaza to be broadly accurate.

“The numbers are obviously catastrophic,” said Unicef spokesperson Toby Fricker. “Verification doesn’t occur in real time, which is why we say ‘reportedly killed’, but, generally speaking, in all conflicts we substantiate initial estimates and in Gaza they have tended to be pretty consistent.”

Among those most at risk are the very youngest children, born during the war. There are an estimated 50,000 pregnant women in Gaza, and with 14 hospitals and 45 clinics closed, “some women are having to give birth in shelters, in their homes, in the streets amid rubble,” the UN said.

Even those in hospitals are at risk because supplies are running out and sanitation is getting worse. The UN warned that 130 premature babies in incubators were at risk.

Zaher Sahloul, president of aid group MedGlobal, said the group’s lead paediatrician in northern Gaza, Husam Abu Safiya, had put out a desperate call for fuel at their Kamal Adwan hospital in Beit Lahiya.

“How can we issue a plea for help? I have children in critical condition, both in the paediatric and adult ventilator units, and just now, a two-year-old girl named Saline Abu Zaher passed away. It’s a catastrophic situation,” he told the organisation.

Israel is coming under increasing pressure over suffering in Gaza, even from its closest ally, the US. The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said in Tel Aviv that more must be done to protect civilians, even as he rejected calls for a ceasefire.

At present, small convoys of trucks are bringing in a trickle of supplies daily that will do little to alleviate shortages of food, medicine and water, and nothing to address the destruction of critical infrastructure.

Egyptian officials said they and counterparts in Qatar were proposing humanitarian pauses for six to 12 hours daily to allow aid in and casualties to be evacuated, Associated Press reported. They were also asking for Israel to release a number of women and elderly prisoners in exchange for hostages held by Hamas, suggestions Israel seems unlikely to accept.

Regional leaders are pushing for a ceasefire, with Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, warning that the war risked pushing the region into an “abyss of hatred and dehumanisation”. Israel, the US and other allies say a ceasefire will leave Hamas able to regroup and attempt to repeat the attacks of 7 October.

Israel’s defence minister, Yoav Gallant, described “fierce battles” inside the Gaza Strip, where troops have encircled Gaza City, and reasserted that Israel’s aim was to “crush” Hamas. “By the end of the war, there will be no Hamas in Gaza,” he said.

Israeli politicians and military commanders have justified strikes on civilian targets – including a refugee camp and medical infrastructure, which are protected under international humanitarian law – saying they concealed Hamas fighting positions.

On Saturday, two strikes hit a UN school sheltering thousands just north of Gaza City, killing several people in tents in the schoolyard and women who were baking bread inside the building. Initial reports indicated 20 people were killed, but news agencies have not yet been able to verify the figure.

Two people were killed in a strike by the gate of Nasser Hospital in Gaza City, according to Medhat Abbas, a Health Ministry spokesman.

An military spokesperson said earlier that Israeli forces had opened a “humanitarian route” for three hours on a major road heading south, and repeated calls for civilians to move south “for their own safety.”