Frankly Speaking: What hope is there for Gaza’s children?

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Updated 01 April 2024

Frankly Speaking: What hope is there for Gaza’s children?

  • UNICEF’s spokesperson says averting famine in Gaza hinges on immediate ceasefire and unrestricted aid access
  • James Elder calls UNRWA the ‘backbone’ of humanitarian aid in Gaza and no other agency can take its place
  • Says Gaza is “potentially the most dangerous place in the world” for aid workers and recipients

DUBAI: Is there any hope for the children of Gaza amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict, restrictions on aid access, and a looming famine in the north of the enclave?

According to UN Children’s Fund spokesperson James Elder, who recently toured the length of Gaza, only an immediate ceasefire can turn the humanitarian situation around.

Appearing on the Arab News current affairs show “Frankly Speaking” via video link from Rafah, on the Gaza-Egypt border, Elder said that opening multiple entry points and delivering sufficient aid could help save the most vulnerable, including the one in three children under the age of two in the north of Gaza who are suffering from acute malnutrition.

Speaking to “Frankly Speaking” host Katie Jensen from Rafah, James Elder lauded the irreplaceable role played in the humanitarian response by UNRWA and highlighted Israel’s unmet obligations under international law to allow sufficient aid to enter Gaza. (AN photo)

“The ability to scale out, to get aid across an area, is what UNICEF does,” Elder told “Frankly Speaking” host Katie Jensen.

“We have the world’s largest humanitarian supply hub in Denmark. We airlift, we ship, we do everything. We have warehouses here in the region as well. So, multiple warehouses … consistently ready to bring in that aid.”

However, until Israel lifts its restrictions on how much aid is permitted to enter the embattled enclave, enabling UNICEF and other humanitarian agencies to deliver much-needed relief, many fear the extreme food insecurity already endured by Palestinians will escalate into a full-blown famine.

In the wide-ranging interview, Elder described the irreplaceable role played in the humanitarian response by the cash-strapped UN Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, and highlighted Israel’s unmet obligations under international law to allow sufficient aid to enter Gaza.

Speaking to “Frankly Speaking” host Katie Jensen from Rafah, James Elder lauded the irreplaceable role played in the humanitarian response by UNRWA and highlighted Israel’s unmet obligations under international law to allow sufficient aid to enter Gaza. (AN photo)

Elder also spoke about the “annihilation” of Gazan cities and the threats posed to UN workers and aid recipients amid the fighting, which had made the Palestinian territory “potentially the most dangerous place on the planet.”

A UN-backed report released in March warned that unless the hostilities are halted and unrestricted aid is allowed to flow into the Gaza Strip, famine could occur by the end of May. The report said 70 percent of Gaza’s 2.3 million-strong population is experiencing catastrophic levels of hunger and food insecurity.

The International Court of Justice at The Hague warned on Thursday that “famine is setting in” as a result of Israel’s continued restrictions on the flow of aid.

In a unanimous ruling, the UN’s highest court ordered Israel to take “all the necessary and effective action” to ensure basic food supplies reach the Palestinian people without delay.

And while saving people in Gaza from starvation is achievable, it will take longer to address “things like disease, the devastation to the health system, to hospitals, to water systems, to sewerage,” said Elder.

Since Israel launched its Gaza operation in retaliation for the Hamas-led attack of October 7, the enclave has become a graveyard for at least 13,000 children, according to UN figures.

Acute malnutrition now affects 31 percent of children under the age of two in the northern governorates, while at least 23 children have already died of starvation and dehydration.

Creating these conditions could amount to a war crime, the UN human rights chief, Volker Turk, told the BBC on Thursday, adding that there was a “plausible” case that Israel was using starvation as a weapon of war in Gaza.

“International humanitarian law is very clear on proportionalities and on what warring factions can do,” said Elder. “We have seen so many breaches in this war, and for children it seems to make no difference right now. Children don’t understand whether international law is being abided by or not.

“Right now, all they are doing is facing the severity of something that no child ever, ever should have to endure.”

In the initial months of the conflict, the bulk of aid distribution and relief work was carried out by UNRWA, which has supported Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon since 1949.

UN workers prepare humanitarian food aid at a UNRWA warehouse/distribution center in Rafah for distribution to Palestinian refugees amid continuing battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. The warehouse was partially hit by an Israeli strike on March 13, 2024. (AFP)

However, in January, more than a dozen countries suspended funding for UNRWA after Israel claimed that 12 of the UN agency’s staff had participated in the October 7 attack, while 450 others were “military operatives in terror groups.”

Although an internal investigation and a separate independent investigation have been launched to examine the allegations, the bulk of UNRWA’s funding is still yet to be restored, bringing its operations in Gaza to the brink of collapse.

Elder said UNICEF and other aid agencies are in no position to assume UNRWA’s responsibilities if it goes under.

“UNRWA is the backbone of humanitarian aid in the Gaza Strip,” he said. “UNRWA has got thousands and thousands of very brave workers, of teachers, of doctors, of pharmacists, of nurses, of you name it.

“UNICEF has deep specialties in child protection and nutrition and so forth, but in terms of that full manpower across the Gaza Strip, the people of Gaza need UNRWA.”

He added: “Fifty percent of food aid getting to those civilians in the north was delivered by UNRWA. That has now been blocked. That’s fast-tracking catastrophe.”

Israeli demonstrators gather by the border fence with Egypt at the Nitzana border crossing in southern Israel on February 18, 2024, as they attempt to block humanitarian aid trucks from entering into Israel on their way to the Gaza Strip. (AFP)

Gaza has become an extremely dangerous place for aid agencies to operate.

“People have been killed receiving aid, aid workers — more aid workers, more of my United Nations colleagues killed in this war than in any time since the advent of the United Nations. This is the reality that people are dealing with,” said Elder.

“Now the UN does work in very dangerous places. That’s what we do. Afghanistan, Sudan, Ukraine, here in Gaza. But we need to be very clear. International humanitarian law is unequivocal. Israel has a legal obligation to facilitate aid, not just getting in, but then to ensure it is safely distributed to those most in need.”

During his journey along the length of the Gaza Strip, Elder was appalled by the scale of the humanitarian catastrophe. While traveling through the Rafah border crossing from Egypt, he saw “hundreds of trucks blocked there with life-saving aid on the wrong side of the border.”

“We are not getting nearly enough aid in,” he added.

Later, during his visit to northern Gaza, he saw “people hanging on to life, children and families who urgently need food.” And yet, “there are crossings there that could be opened, old crossings where you would have aid within 10 or 15 minutes.”

With road access into Gaza limited by Israeli forces, aid agencies have been examining options for a maritime corridor. In mid-March, the Open Arms set sail from Cyprus towing 200 tonnes of flour, protein, and rice bound for Gaza.

The Open Arms, a rescue vessel owned by a Spanish NGO, departs with humanitarian aid for Gaza from Larnaca, Cyprus, on March 30, 2024. (REUTERS)

“Any aid is useful aid, but the ship had the equivalent of around 12 trucks,” said Elder. “There’s 50 times 12 trucks on the other side of the border.”

Another aid access workaround pursued by the US, Jordan and Egypt is airdrops, parachuting aid into Gaza.

However, airdrops are usually used “when people are massively cut off from humanitarian assistance — a flood or a natural disaster,” said Elder. “Here, they’re not cut off. There’s a road network. Road is the efficient, effective way. Roads are what will turn around this humanitarian catastrophe with a ceasefire.”

Jordan, along with the US, German and other European countries had been delivering food aid to Gaza by parachutes, but the scale of starvation in the Israeli-besieged enclave is barely enough, according to humanitarian agencies. (AFP)

Echoing criticism of Israel’s limits on the flow of aid, Elder said: “We need to be very clear. International humanitarian law is unequivocal. Israel has a legal obligation to facilitate aid, not just getting in, but then to ensure it is safely distributed to those most in need.”

On March 25, the UN Security Council passed a resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire in Gaza for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which ends in less than a fortnight.

Elder said the resolution must be “substantive and not symbolic” because a ceasefire “allows the United Nations to flood the Gaza Strip with humanitarian aid and we can turn this imminent famine around.”

A United Nations vehicle drives by as Palestinian girls share a food ration in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 31, 2024. (AFP)

A ceasefire, said Elder, would also allow Israel to bring home its citizens who have been held hostage in Gaza since October 7. “There are children here somewhere underground or whatever horrendous torment they are enduring,” he said. “End the torment, get hostages home.”

He added: “A ceasefire means families — a mother and a child can go to bed with absolute certainty that they will wake up. They haven’t had that for many months.”
In November and December last year, Elder said he visited Al-Nasr Hospital in Khan Younis, where the “incredible” health workers were “doing 24-36-hour shifts in a war zone.”

“They were doing the work that they knew they love to do, and they were born to do as some had said, but they were terrified because their families were outside.”

Palestinians inspect the site of an Israeli strike on a house in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on March 29, 2024. (REUTERS)

Returning to Khan Younis in recent days, Elder said: “I went through it now and it’s just annihilated, street after street, rubble everywhere. I have not seen that level of devastation, which in my mind segued to here, to Rafah, and why we cannot see that happen here.”

Now, it is as though Khan Younis and Gaza City no longer exist. “Just cracked rubble and steel as far as you can see and stunned looking people, because home after home has been destroyed,” he said.

Rafah, meanwhile, “is a city of tents. It’s a city of children. This is where families were meant to go to stay safe. And there’s a desperation here, but there is a solidarity. People do what they can for each other.”

He added: “I’ve been across the Gaza Strip. In the north is a level of suffering that I can’t say defies words, but it is getting to a point where, well, we’re seeing children die of malnutrition, of dehydration.”

A mourner carries the body of a Palestinian child killed in an Israeli strike in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on March 29, 2024. (REUTERS)

“You see parents in tears over a child’s cot, a child who is paper thin. This is a mother who’s done everything she can to protect her child from these relentless … bombardments. And now she’s trying to protect her child from starvation.

“These mothers and fathers are learning that the real decisions about the safety of their children are being made by people elsewhere. So, there is a level of stress and anxiety across the Gaza Strip.”

Elder said the situation in Gaza “speaks to the mental trauma here of more than a million children.

“As a child psychologist said to me, we are in uncharted territory here when it comes to the mental health of girls and boys in Gaza.”

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Divisions, elections and Assad lay bare Europe’s Syrian quagmire

Updated 17 sec ago

Divisions, elections and Assad lay bare Europe’s Syrian quagmire

PARIS: The European Union will convene donors next week to keep Syria on the global agenda, but as the economic and social burden of refugees on neighboring countries mounts the bloc is divided and unable to find solutions to tackle the issue, diplomats say.
Syria has become a forgotten crisis that nobody wants to stir amid the war raging between Israel and Islamist Palestinian militants Hamas and tensions growing between Iran and Western powers over its regional activities.
More than 5 million refugees mostly in Lebanon and Turkiye and millions more displaced internally have little prospect of returning home with political stability no closer than since the uprising against President Bashar Assad’s rule began in 2011.
Funding to support them is dropping with the likes of the World Food Programme reducing its aid. Difficulties to host refugees are surfacing, notably in Lebanon, where the economic situation is perilous and a call to send Syrians home is one of the rare issues that unites all communities.
“We have no levers because we never resumed relations with the Assad regime and there are no indications anybody really will,” said a former European envoy to Syria.
“Even if we did, why would Syria offer carrots to countries that have been hostile to him and especially taking back people who opposed him anyway.”
Major European and Arab ministers along with key international organizations meet for the 8th Syria conference next Monday, but beyond vague promises and financial pledges, there are few signs that Europe can take the lead.
The talks come just ahead of the European elections on June 6-9 in which migration is a divisive issue among the bloc’s 27-member states. With far-right and populist parties already expected to do well, there is little appetite to step up refugee support.
The conference itself has changed from eight years ago. The level of participation has been downgraded. The likes of Russia, the key actor backing Assad, is no longer invited after its invasion of Ukraine. The global geopolitical situation and drop in the conflict’s intensity keeps it off radars.
There are divisions within the EU on the subject. Some countries such as Italy and Cyprus are more open to having a form of dialogue with Assad to at least discuss possible ways to step up voluntary returns in conjunction with and under the auspices of the United Nations.
However, others, like France which acknowledges the pressure the refugees are weighing on Lebanon and fears broader conflict between Iran-backed Hezbollah and Israel, remain steadfast that there can be no discussion with the Assad regime until key conditions are met.
But the reality on the ground is forcing a discussion on the issue.
Demonstrating the tensions between the EU and the countries hosting refugees, Lebanese MPs threatened to reject the bloc’s 1 billion euro package announced earlier this month, slamming it as a “bribe” to keep refugees in limbo in Lebanon instead of resettling them permanently in Europe or sending them back home to Syria.
Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who unlike in previous years is not due to attend the Brussels conference, has said that Beirut would start dealing with the issue itself without proper international assistance.
The result has been an upswing in migrant boats from Lebanon to Europe, with nearby Cyprus and increasingly Italy, too, as the main destinations, prompting some countries to ring alarm bells fearing a flood of new refugees into the bloc.
“Let me be clear, the current situation is not sustainable for Lebanon, it’s not sustainable for Cyprus and it’s not sustainable for the European Union. It hasn’t been sustainable for years,” Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides said this month during a visit to Lebanon.
Highlighting the divisions in Europe, eight countries — Austria, Czech Republic, Cyprus, Denmark, Greece, Italy, Malta and Poland — last week issued a joint statement after talks in Cyprus, breaking ranks with the bloc’s previous positions.
They argued that the dynamics in Syria had changed and that while political stability did not exist yet, things had evolved sufficiently to “re-evaluate the situation” to find “more effective ways of handling the issue.”
“I don’t think there will be a big movement in terms of EU attitude, but perhaps some baby steps to engage and see if more can be done in various areas,” said a diplomat from one of the countries that attended the talks in Cyprus.
Another was more blunt.
“Come Tuesday Syria will be swept under the carpet and forgotten. The Lebanese will be left to deal with the crisis alone,” said a French diplomat.

More aid getting from US pier to people in Gaza, officials say, after troubled launch

Updated 45 min 37 sec ago

More aid getting from US pier to people in Gaza, officials say, after troubled launch

  • Crowds overrun some of the first trucks coming from the new US-led sea route and taking its contents over the weekend, leading to a two-day suspension of aid distribution
  • At maximum capacity, the pier would bring in enough food for 500,000 of Gaza’s people. US officials stressed the need for flow through open land crossings for the remaining 1.8 million

WASHINGTON: A six-day-old US pier project in Gaza is starting to get more aid to Palestinians in need but conditions are challenging, US officials said Thursday. That reflects the larger problems bringing food and other supplies to starving people in the besieged territory.

The floating pier had a troubled launch, with crowds overrunning some of the first trucks coming from the new US-led sea route and taking its contents over the weekend. One man in the crowd was shot dead in still-unexplained circumstances. It led to a two-day suspension of aid distribution.
The US military worked with the UN and Israeli officials to select safer alternate routes for trucks coming from the pier, US Vice Admiral Brad Cooper told reporters Thursday.
As a result, the US pier on Wednesday accounted for 27 of the 70 total trucks of aid that the UN was able to round up from all land and sea crossings into Gaza for distribution to civilians, the United States said.
That’s a fraction of the 150 truckloads of food, emergency nutrition treatment and other supplies that US officials aim to bring in when the sea route is working at maximum capacity.
Plus, Gaza needs 600 trucks entering each day, according to the US Agency for International Development, to curb a famine that the heads of USAID and the UN World Food Program have said has begun in the north and to keep it from spreading south.

Only one of the 54 trucks that came from the pier Tuesday and Wednesday encountered any security issues on their way to aid warehouses and distribution points, US officials said. They called the issues “minor” but gave no details.
A deepening Israeli offensive in the southern city of Rafah has made it impossible for aid shipments to get through the crossing there, which is a key source for fuel and food coming into Gaza. Israel says it is bringing aid in through another border crossing, Kerem Shalom, but humanitarian organizations say Israeli military operations make it difficult for them to retrieve the aid there for distribution.
The Biden administration last week launched the $320 million floating pier for a new maritime aid route into Gaza as the seven-month-old Israel-Hamas war and Israeli restrictions on land crossings have severely limited food deliveries to 2.3 million Palestinians.
For all humanitarian efforts, “the risks are manifold,” Daniel Dieckhaus, USAID’s response director for Gaza, said at a briefing with Cooper. “This is an active conflict with deteriorating conditions.”
Dieckhaus rejected charges from some aid groups that the pier is diverting attention from what the US, UN and relief workers say is the essential need for Israel to allow full access to land crossings for humanitarian shipments.
For instance, Jeremy Konyndyk, a former USAID official now leading Refugees International, tweeted that “the pier is humanitarian theater.”
“I would not call, within a couple of days, getting enough food and other supplies for tens of thousands of people for a month theater,” Dieckhaus said Thursday when asked about the criticism.
At maximum capacity, the pier would bring in enough food for 500,000 of Gaza’s people. US officials stressed the need for flow through open land crossings for the remaining 1.8 million.

Three US troops have non-combat injuries during Gaza pier operation

Updated 24 May 2024

Three US troops have non-combat injuries during Gaza pier operation

WASHINGTON: Three US troops suffered non-combat injuries in the effort to make a temporary pier off the coast of Gaza into a conduit for humanitarian aid, with one in critical condition at an Israeli hospital, US officials said on Thursday.

The injuries were the first for US forces during the latest operation to bring humanitarian aid to Palestinians.

The pier was announced by US President Joe Biden in March and involved the military assembling the floating structure off the coast. Estimated to cost $320 million for the first 90 days and involve about 1,000 US service members, it went into operation last week.

US Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, the deputy commander of US Central Command, told reporters that two of the troops had a sprained ankle and a minor back injury.

“Two were very minor, routine injuries. Those individuals returned to duty,” Cooper said.

A third service member, injured on a ship at sea, was medically evacuated to a hospital in Israel, he said. A US defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the individual was in critical condition.

US lawmakers have voiced concern about the risks to positioning US troops off the coast of Gaza. Biden has said they will not step foot in the war-torn city itself.

The Pentagon has said it will prioritize the safety of US military personnel.

“We’re clear eyed and we continue to look at force protection all day, every day and as it stands now we assess the operations can continue,” Cooper said.

Social media images showed a US air defense system, known as the Counter Rockets, Artillery and Mortars (CRAM), firing into the sky while on the pier. US officials said troops were testing the system.

Daniel Dieckhaus of the US Agency for International Development said that since the pier opened last week, about 506 metric tons of aid had been handed off to humanitarian groups inside Gaza. About a third of that has not yet been distributed but would be soon, he said.

Medic says Gaza hospital under Israeli siege for fifth day

Updated 23 May 2024

Medic says Gaza hospital under Israeli siege for fifth day

GAZA STRIP: A senior official at Al-Awda Hospital in northern Gaza said it was under Israeli military siege for a fifth straight day on Thursday after soldiers stormed it the previous day.

“We are still under siege for the fifth day in a row,” said the hospital’s acting director, Dr. Mohammed Saleh.

“Soldiers are present in the hospital’s courtyard and nearby houses,” he said, adding that there was “continuous gunfire and shelling” toward it.

Troops stormed the hospital building on Wednesday evening, he said.

“The hospital was stormed, and staff were forced to leave. I currently have only 13 staff, 11 patients, and two women accompanying wounded children,” Saleh said.

World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on social media platform X that 140 staff, patients, and accompanying adults were inside the hospital when troops stormed it.

The WHO visited Al-Awda regularly in April to deliver medical supplies and fuel, but on Tuesday Ghebreyesus said snipers were targeting the building and artillery had hit the fifth floor.

On Tuesday, patients and staff were also evacuated from another hospital in northern Gaza, Kamal Adwan, its director, Dr. Hossam Abu Safia, said at the time.

“These are the only two functional hospitals remaining in northern Gaza. Ensuring their ability to deliver health services is imperative,” Ghebreyesus said in Geneva.

Israeli troops have previously raided other medical facilities in Gaza, including Al-Shifa in Gaza City, the territory’s largest hospital, which was reduced to rubble after an operation in March, the WHO said.

Bahrain’s King Hamad says he is looking forward to improved relations with Iran

Russian President Vladimir receives Bahrain's King Hamad at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, May 23, 2024. (BNA)
Updated 23 May 2024

Bahrain’s King Hamad says he is looking forward to improved relations with Iran

  • King meets Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin 

RIYADH: Bahrain’s King Hamad said his country was looking forward to improving its relations with Iran during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin.
The king added that there was no reason for Bahrain to postpone the resumption of diplomatic relations with Iran, the Bahrain News Agency reported on Thursday.
The king and Putin discussed the war in Gaza, regional and international efforts aimed at reaching a ceasefire, and the release of hostages and detainees. They also focused on providing humanitarian aid without obstacles to the territory’s civilian population.
They highlighted the importance of advancing the course of diplomatic action to settle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and achieving a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. The leaders also said efforts to recognize the Palestinian state and accept it as a permanent member of the UN should be supported.
They also stressed the importance of the UN Security Council assuming its responsibilities toward resolving and ending global conflicts, and working to settle them in accordance with the rules of international law and the UN Charter to maintain international peace and security.
The king informed the Russian president of the outcomes of the Arab Summit held recently in Bahrain, adding that Arab countries appreciated Russia’s sympathy for just Arab causes.
The king and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called for the convening of an international conference at the summit, which would take place under the auspices of the UN, to resolve the Palestinian issue on the basis of a two-state solution.
The king added that he hoped to host the conference and requested Russia’s support for it.