Children Victims of Aid Cut-off to Palestinians
Between The Lines
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release July 10, 2006
Children are Primary Victims of International Aid Cut-off to Palestinian Territories
Interview with Marixie Mercado, communications officer with UNICEF's United Nations' Children's Fund, conducted by Scott Harris
Violence and hardship have escalated in the Palestinian Territories -- Gaza and the West Bank -- since Hamas came to power in March of this year. Hamas does not recognize Israel's right to exist, and the international community responded with an aid cut-off. However, Hamas is now in negotiations with Fatah, its political rival over a document that would recognize Israel's right to exist and negotiate a two-state solution. Tensions have increased during the month of June, with the killing of at least 20 Palestinian civilians as well as the assassination of two Palestinian militants in Gaza by the Israeli Defense Force. On June 25, Palestinian militants -- including members of Hamas -- tunneled into Israel underneath a Gaza border crossing, in retaliation they said for recent Israeli attacks, and killed two Israeli soldiers and captured another.
Israel has vowed that Palestinians will pay a heavy price for this incursion, especially if the soldier is not returned unharmed. After the attack, Israel closed the border crossings, the only way people and goods can enter or exit the territory. Previous closings have created widespread hardships. Gaza is home to 1.3 million people crammed onto 140 square miles -- much of it desert -- less than a tenth the size of Rhode Island.
Children suffer disproportionately from the violence and from the lack of food and medical care. UNICEF, the United Nations' Children's Fund, released a statement in mid-June warning that one in three newborns in Gaza is at risk of dying due to the lack of medicines and emergency medical equipment in hospitals. Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Marixie Mercado, communications officer with UNICEF's humanitarian aid programs in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. She describes the current crisis and explains what UNICEF does in Palestine to improve the lives of children in the current climate.
MARIXIE MERCADO: I’ve just actually come back from the Territory about two weeks ago, and I can tell you that in May central stocks of some critical medicines were at or near zero levels in central warehouses. What UNICEF has done to deal with that, we’ve procured about $1.2 million worth of essential drugs and medicines for the over 400 primary health clinics and 17 general hospitals in Gaza. And these supplies and equipment include a whole array of supplies and materials particularly for the neonatal units in the 17 general hospitals within the Territories. So we’ve identified newborn mortality as a huge issue and we’re bringing in the drugs and the supplies that are really needed to deal with it. I was briefed on this a little by a doctor, and he told me the primary reasons for death are prematurity and low birth weight, and that essentially with good hospital facilities, all children who are born with these conditions can make it. But under current circumstances, because of the lack of facilities to, for example, maintain regular body temperature or maintain good breathing, or drugs to treat complications, these are why mortality rates are rising now.
BETWEEN THE LINES: We hear a lot in the U.S. about all the Qassam rockets the Palestinians in Gaza are firing into Israel, which have injured a few people but not killed anyone, I believe. But I just read an article in the NYT that indicated that Israel is firing a lot more into Gaza than vice versa, and that at least 19 Palestinian civilians, including many children, were killed by Israeli shelling in the past month.
MARIXIE MERCADO: In the last three months, Palestinians have fired 479 homemade rockets toward Israel, and in the same period the IDF – the Israeli Defense Forces – have fired 7,599 artillery shells into the Gaza Strip.
BETWEEN THE LINES: So, what kind of impact of that shelling is UNICEF dealing with?
MARIXIE MERCADO: You’re living in basically, especially in northern Gaza, it’s in the crossfire of the shells and the artillery coming from both sides then. Basically, you’re living in the context of constant shelling. This is something you hear all the time; you don’t even blink anymore. It’s just a context of extraordinary violence and insecurity, particularly for kids. There’s an increasing risk, I understand, of kids coming into contact with unexploded ordnance because of areas in Gaza that had been previously closed off to them and are now open to them. It’s something that has been going on for a long, long time. It’s just that things have escalated now.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Marixie Mercado, what does UNICEF do, exactly, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories?
MARIXIE MERCADO: UNICEF procures the entire vaccine requirement, along with a wide range of drugs and supplies. Along with our partners on the ground, we conduct immunization campaigns and reach areas without health clinics. We upgrade facilities, train health workers, and help deal with new threats like avian flu. In terms of education, we help make sure that children can keep studying despite checkpoints, closures and other military activity. We’ve developed remedial worksheets in math, science, Arabic and English that basically allow students who are forced to stay home to keep up with their studies or when they get to school and the teachers can’t get there, to continue studying anyway. We’ve worked with communities across the Territory to develop safe play areas where basically, young people can be young. They’re living in a context of extraordinary violence and there are not a lot of safe places for them to just be young. So working with communities we’ve established, I think, 41 safe play areas across the territories, and in these places we have trained animators who give guidance and can help them develop skills that go from computer literacy to drama. And I guess the other key thing that we do is we have 12 psychosocial teams across Gaza and the West Bank who work with parents and children to help them deal with the overwhelming level of conflict-induced stress, and particularly during emergencies, these teams visit homes and hospitals.
BETWEEN THE LINES: If restrictions to Palestinians’ movement are not eased, and Palestinian government workers can’t get paid soon, and food and medical care made more easily available, what is your prognosis for Palestinian children?
MARIXIE MERCADO: The humanitarian outlook, not just for Gaza but for the entire Palestinian Territory, it looks extremely bleak and it’s predicted to worsen dramatically.
For more information on UNICEF's work in Palestine, call (212) 326-7261 or visit http://www.unicef.org
Melinda Tuhus is aproducer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 40 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at http://www.btlonline.org. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending July 14, 2006. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Melinda Tuhus and Anna Manzo.