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Ceasefire The Only Way To End Killing And Injuring Of Children In Gaza: UNICEF

Advocating for a ceasefire is the best way to support the people of Gaza, including children in the north who are dying of hunger, a Spokesperson for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said on Thursday.

Tess Ingram was part of a UNICEF team that was headed to northern Gaza on Tuesday when their vehicle was hit by live ammunition while waiting at a checkpoint.

“Luckily, myself and my colleagues, we were all safe, but this just underscores how dangerous it is for humanitarian aid workers in Gaza at the moment: that incidents like this continue to happen when they absolutely shouldn't,” she told UN News, speaking from Rafah in the south.

‘Critical mission’ rescheduled

The UN has repeatedly warned of looming famine in Gaza, where roughly 70 per cent of the population in the north is going hungry and as access restrictions persist.

Ms. Ingram said the UNICEF team had hoped to proceed to the region “because it was such a critical mission with nutrition products for the children who were malnourished in the north of Gaza, among other things”.

However, after waiting at the holding point for at least another two hours, they decided moving forward was no longer feasible as there would not be enough time to conduct all their activities, and returned to Rafah.

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While another mission is being scheduled for the coming days, she stressed the critical need for more aid corridors and, above all, for the fighting to end.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tess Ingram: It's tragic to see anybody suffering from malnutrition, which is such a painful condition, let alone in a place where malnutrition was almost non-existent before October. And it's now skyrocketed in the north of Gaza because of disruptions to food production, but also because of restrictions on aid access to that area. We've really struggled to get up there with aid.

As a result, we know that children are dying of malnutrition there. At least 23 children have reportedly died at the Kamal Adwan Hospital, which is where we were trying to bring these nutrition treatments on Tuesday.

UN News: Is there a particular story that you heard, a particular child that really resonated with you?

Tess Ingram: There's a boy that I met in the middle area at Al-Aqsa Hospital in Deir Al-Balah. His name is Omar. He is seven years old. I wasn't able to speak to him because he was in such a terrible condition, so much pain.

But, I talked to his grandmother, and she was telling me that they had just come down from the north 48 hours earlier, that in the north they had access to barely any food and they were relying heavily on grass to sustain them. And you could see how sick Omar is. I really hope that he's okay now.

The director of pediatrics at the hospital told me that he hoped that Omar would make a full recovery. But, concerningly, he said that 90 per cent of the children that they're admitting at the moment have some level of malnutrition, which is just shocking.

UN News: Israel said that it has the intention at least to open the Erez crossing into northern Gaza. Has this materialised yet? Were you able to get anything in to relieve the situation?

Tess Ingram: No, not yet, and that is such a critical step. We really need that crossing to be open so that we can increase the volume of aid, but also so that we have direct access straight into the north. And that's important for two reasons. One, it'll allow us to bring aid in faster and at scale to these children and families in the north who desperately need food and nutrition supplies. But also, it will prevent us, as the UN, having to drive through the whole Gaza Strip with our aid, which is important in such a dangerous place.

UN News: You've seen these children, you've seen the conditions there. Is there still time to avoid the famine that the UN has been warning about, or are we already too late?

Tess Ingram: Look, it's really hard to know. We've said that a famine could happen at any moment between now and May, and I think that still holds in the north of Gaza. For the south, the risk of famine is there. But, I think we can still prevent it if we can just flood the Gaza Strip with aid. There is still time to prevent a famine in the middle and south of Gaza.

UN News: We've been hearing many calls on the international stage for increased humanitarian access, increased humanitarian aid, in Gaza, but this has been to no avail. What needs to happen to make that happen?

Tess Ingram: The best way to make that happen is the ceasefire. It is the only way to end the killing and injuring of children. It is the best way to ensure that we can bring in more aid and to distribute that aid at scale safely to all of the children and families in Gaza in need.

UN News: You visited hospitals in Gaza, and we know that the healthcare system in the Strip is on the verge of collapse. Can you tell us what that means in practical terms and in real-life terms?

Tess Ingram: In real-life terms, what that means is doctors are struggling to provide the care that they want to and that they’re used to in Gaza. It means that supplies are running out. It means that staff are unable to be paid salaries, and many more of them are having to become volunteers. And that's not sustainable because they have to be able to support their families in such desperate conditions.

It means that children are dying without the appropriate medical care, or they're unable to receive treatment that they need. For example, I met a girl at the European Hospital this week. Her name's Juri, and she's nine years old. She is from Rafah, here, at the south of the Gaza Strip.

Despite this, being an area where there hasn't been a ground offensive yet, she was in a building, her grandparents’ house, that was struck. And Juri said the last thing she remembers is playing with birds in a cage at the house and then waking up in European Hospital.

She has so many broken bones – the right side of her face and her arm and her wrist. But, on the left side of her body, where she was struck by the impact of the blast, she has enormous open wounds that haven’t been able to be treated in Gaza.

When I met her, it had been 16 days since the incident. And she was still lying in a hospital bed with very painful, large, open wounds, waiting, hoping that she might be able to be evacuated from Gaza to get the treatment that she needs. But, this has to be unacceptable to the world that a nine-year-old girl who was just visiting her grandparents ends up with such a traumatic injury that cannot be treated, and she's still waiting for help.

UN News: You spoke about the fact that Rafah currently doesn’t have a ground offensive, and there are growing fears, of course, that this incursion is going to happen after the government announced that it actually has a date for that operation. How is UNICEF preparing itself to deal with that?

Tess Ingram: We’re preparing contingency plans. We’re trying to strategise about how we’ll continue to do our job. We don’t intend to go anywhere. We’re going to stay and deliver and make sure that we can continue to provide support to the children and families of Gaza.

UN News: With regard to education, the UN notes that 100 per cent of children in Gaza are out of school. Do you think we lost a generation in Gaza?

Tess Ingram: Look, 625,000 students haven’t had access to education since October. And when I meet kids here, one of the first things they tell me is how much they miss school – miss learning, miss their friends, what their favourite subject used to be.

These children want to learn. They want to go back to school. But, the longer it goes, the harder it becomes. So, we really need to make sure that these children can go back to school as soon as possible in formal learning, but in the meantime have some sort of temporary learning. And that’s what we’re trying to set up at the moment as UNICEF.

UN News: Of course, with the attention on the immediate catastrophe at hand, longer-term effects can sometimes be overlooked. What are some of those long-term effects that UNICEF is expecting on children in Gaza? Is there anything being done now to address them once the guns fall silent?

Tess Ingram: I think something that’s often overlooked is the mental health impact of this war. And we know that children are experiencing repeated trauma, which will certainly have long-term impacts.

If you think about other conflicts around the world, a child may experience one or two incidents of trauma, but generally, then they're able to flee to safety.

But, in Gaza, children are trapped, and they’re not able to leave. Every day, they’re experiencing some form of trauma - whether that's, an explosion, losing a family member, not knowing whether somebody is okay – living with that fear day in, day out definitely impacts them. And it can have developmental impacts on their bodies as well. So, this is something that we’re very concerned about.

We’re working now to try and mitigate it in the small ways that we can. We can’t yet provide counselling because children aren’t safe. But, what we’re doing at the moment is providing recreational activities and psychosocial support in groups so that children can come together and play or do arts and crafts or drama or simply counsel each other if they’re a bit older and just for a moment have a sense of community or a sense of childhood.

I've seen it, and it’s a really nice thing to witness – these children laughing and smiling amid the horror around us.

UN News: Many people want to do something about this situation, but they feel helpless. What can they do to support Gazans?

Tess Ingram: I think the most important thing that we need to do is to continue advocating for a ceasefire – through whatever channels you are able to – to continue to call for an end to the fighting because that really is the only way that we’re going to be able to end this situation and end the fear and the death and the destruction for the children of Gaza.

But, until that happens, the other thing that’s really important is support for the humanitarian agencies on the ground. We’re all here doing our best to try and help the people of Gaza, and we need the international community’s support to continue that work.

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