The headline of this article might sound cliché, or a familiar refrain, however, its resonance remains undiminished—especially amidst the ongoing Israeli onslaught on Gaza. Though frequently echoed by rights groups and journalists for years, the stark reality it encapsulates gains fresh urgency in light of the current events unfolding in the besieged region.
Since the onset of the relentless Israeli military assault on the Gaza Strip following the October 7 Hamas attacks, a staggering toll has unfolded with Gaza’s health ministry reporting that at least 16,248 Palestinians including 4,885 women have been killed in Israeli bombardment and ground offensive. As many as 43,000 have also been injured.
Although these astonishing numbers alone paint a grim picture of the war in Gaza, the one statistic, however, which poignantly illustrates the colossal scale of the Israeli indiscriminate offensive is the toll this assault has on Gaza’s youngest and most vulnerable lives. In the past 60 days, an estimated 7,112 children have reportedly been killed – constituting almost half of all Gazans killed as of 5 December.
In other words, 117 children were killed every day since the launch of Israel’s war on Gaza, or, on average about five kids have lost their lives every hour since the conflict began. According to UN estimates, over 1,200 children also remain missing, their fate uncertain beneath the rubble left by widespread bombings. During the same period, Israeli forces and settlers killed 249 Palestinians, including 65 children in the occupied West Bank.
Such statistics are hardly surprising as the median age in Gaza with a population of 2.3 million is just 18 years old, with 43 percent of Gaza’s population being children aged 14 and under, while approximately 22 percent are aged between 15-24 years.
The military assault on Gaza has only exacerbated a humanitarian crisis that resulted from a 17-year-long siege and blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip by Israel following Hamas’s election in 2007. Described by the United Nations and other human rights groups as a form of “collective punishment” against the civilian population, the siege has pushed Gaza to the brink of “systemic collapse.” The territory’s economy and social life are stifled and denied access to functional trading relations.
Living hell for children
UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ speaking on the situation in the Middle East on 6 November termed Gaza as ‘a graveyard for children,’ and stated that hundreds of girls and boys were being killed or injured every day. The damning statement, although reflecting the grim reality of the situation in the territory, it was neither unprecedented nor newfound. The UN Chief previously in 2021 termed Gaza a “hell on earth,” in wake of the killing of 60 children by Israeli bombardment.
Terming the Gaza Strip the ‘world’s most dangerous place to be a child,’ United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) executive director Catherine Russell said that all one million children in Gaza are now food insecure and facing a catastrophic nutrition crisis with child wasting, the most life-threatening form of malnutrition, likely to increase by 30 percent.
Such an unprecedented scale of violence against the Gazan people in general, and children in particular, is not collateral but arguably by design. Given that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invoked the theory of ‘Amalek’, a nation in the Hebrew Bible, to justify the killing of Gaza residents, the intent to kill even children has been clear. Following Israel’s airstrike on Gaza’s Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital that left over 500 killed, including several children, Netanyahu tweeted in which he referred to Palestinian children as “the children of darkness.”
Other than blaming killings on Hamas, the Israeli government further sought to justify the killing of Gazan children by stating that they had found a copy of Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ in a child’s room in Gaza.
In a New York Times column, journalist Nicholas Kristof, with a self-explanatory title, “We Must Not Kill Gazan Children to Try to Protect Israel’s Children” asserted the imperative to refrain from causing harm to Gazan children. “If your ethics see some children as invaluable and others as disposable, that’s not moral clarity but moral myopia.”
War with impunity
Before the 7 October, an estimated 2,213 Palestinian children were killed by Israeli forces since September 2000. In August this year, the global rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that the Israeli military and border police forces were killing Palestinian children with virtually no recourse for accountability. “Israeli forces are gunning down Palestinian children living under occupation with increasing frequency,” HRW’s associate children’s rights director Bill Van Esveld said, adding that Palestinian children lived “a reality of apartheid and structural violence, where they could be gunned down at any time without any serious prospect of accountability.”
Earlier in May, various child rights organizations operating in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories drew attention to a disconcerting pattern: Israeli security forces annually apprehend approximately 1,000 Palestinian children from the streets, schools, and homes of the West Bank. A similar number is reported from East Jerusalem, with suspicions of involvement in attacks or protests.
These organizations detailed disturbing Israeli practices against Palestinian children, including nocturnal arrests, detention without court orders or explanations, blindfolding, preventing the presence of parents, family members, or lawyers during arrests, and subjecting them to physical abuse and verbal insults. In 2016, Israeli military authorities amended the law of military occupation in the West Bank and civilian law in East Jerusalem, allowing the arrest and trial of children aged 12 and above. The amendments were done to charge a teenage boy Ahmed Manasra with attempted murder.
Rights organizations condemn these practices as abusive, citing their detrimental impact on the physical and mental well-being of young individuals. Consequently, it comes as little surprise that a significant number of children in the Gaza Strip, four out of five to be precise, express living with depression, grief, and fear. According to a 2022 War Child report, the crisis’s scale is alarming, revealing that around two-thirds of all children in Gaza, approximately 675,000, urgently require psychological support. Another 2020 study revealed that 53.5 percent of children in Gaza were grappling with PTSD, with nearly 90 percent having undergone personal trauma.
Moreover, it is estimated that the Israeli military detains and prosecutes between 500 to 700 Palestinian children each year in military courts lacking essential safeguards for a fair trial. The children are often violently taken from their beds in night raids, experiencing ill-treatment, torture, and violations of their fundamental rights from the moment of arrest. A UN human rights body in 2013 accused Israeli forces of mistreating Palestinian children, including by torturing those in custody and using others as human shields.
In a compelling visual metaphor for Israel’s engagement in Gaza, the iconic photograph of Faris Odeh, a young resident of Zaitoun quarter, encapsulates the essence of the conflict. The powerful image freezes a decisive moment, as Odeh, a Palestinian child, defiantly throws a stone at an IDF tank. This striking tableau vividly portrays the stark reality of Gaza—a battleground where state-of-the-art military forces confront the innocence and vulnerability of its children.