The rapid escalation in violence in the Gaza Strip has put the densely populated territory, home to an estimated 1m children, back on the front pages everywhere.
Israel’s Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Mark Regev, has described Israel’s response to protests as measured and ‘surgical’. Sadly, the reality on the ground is a terrible toll of surgery needed to treat hundreds of children hit by live fire.
One hundred years ago, Save the Children’s founder, Eglantyne Jebb, issued a challenge to the world to stop “wars on children’’. But a century later growing numbers of children in many parts of the world are still suffering the unacceptable impact of conflict. From Syria to Yemen, Myanmar to the Democratic Republic of Congo, we are calling on governments to consistently uphold international laws and standards to protect children in conflict.
That’s why we’re asking our supporters to speak up for the children in Gaza today.
Gaza violence growing
Since the protests in Gaza began on March 30, reports say almost 8,000 people have been injured. Save the Children’s own research has found at least 250 children have been shot with live ammo. The sheer volume of wounded has left medical workers struggling to keep pace and has further pushed services and families to breaking point.
As an agency that exists to protect and uphold the rights of children, Save the Children is calling on Israel to end the use of sniper fire, live ammunition and tear gas against children.
Our team on the ground is deeply concerned about both the physical and the psychological impact of the current violence. So far, 12 children have been killed and over 1,000 injured. These include Rashed*, a 16-year-old track athlete who had Olympic ambitions but was shot in the leg during protests. He was taken to hospital but subsequently had to have his leg amputated.
Respect the right to protest
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has stressed that “lethal force may only be used as a measure of last – not first – resort, and only when there is an immediate threat to life or serious injury. An attempt to approach or crossing or damaging the fence do not amount to a threat to life or serious injury and are not sufficient grounds for the use of live ammunition. This is also the case with regards to stones and Molotov cocktails being thrown from a distance at well-protected security forces located behind defensive positions”.
A statement from the British minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, has implored “Israel to show greater restraint”, whilst Karen Pierce, the UK Permanent Representative to the UN Security Council, has reiterated “the importance of protecting minors”. Save the Children supports both of these calls and we urge the Foreign Office to summon Ambassador Regev in order to convey these messages directly.
Save the Children takes note of concerns expressed by the UN Special representative to the Middle East Peace Process that “Hamas, which controls Gaza, must not use the protests as cover to attempt to place bombs at the fence and create provocations; its operatives must not hide among the demonstrators and risk the lives of civilians”.
Accountability is essential
There is more need than ever for the UN Security Council to agree on an independent and transparent investigation into these killings, as we have urged in cases elsewhere in the world.
More broadly, we are deeply concerned by the wider global crisis of accountability regarding perpetrators of violations of International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Law, who are too often able to commit crimes against civilians with impunity.
While there have been some small gains – an International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism on Syria to assist in investigating and prosecuting international crimes committed there and a resolution passed by the UN Human Rights Council in September to investigate violations of human rights and international law in the Yemen conflict – attempts to undermine institutions, experts and investigations that seek accountability and justice have been observed the world over.
We believe the UK can and should play a critical role in renewing global focus on the prevention of atrocities by using its influence in key multilateral institutions to push for initiatives to increase accountability for violations. In the long term, this will reduce the harm done to children and other civilians and will strengthen the international rules-based system upon which all our security depends.
De-escalation must be immediate
For the children of Gaza, we are deeply concerned at the prospect of further violence and even more injuries or deaths. There is an urgent need to de-escalate in order to avoid violence reaching the levels that we saw in 2008-9, 2012 and 2014, when hundreds of children were killed.
The violence of 2014 led the British government to conduct a review of all weapons export licenses to Israel to ensure that the arms are being put to “appropriate” use. We are asking that a similar review take place today..
Immediate de-escalation needs to be followed up by a redoubling of efforts to end the 10-year blockade of Gaza which is causing so much harm to children.
Following the collapse of reconciliation talks between Hamas authorities in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in West Bank, the PA has imposed power cuts, restricted fuel for generators across Gaza and imposed wage freezes to civil workers in the narrow strip. The recently-announced funding cuts to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) could have further devastating consequences for at least half of the population that the agency supports, with the prospect of schools shutting down and health clinics becoming even further overstretched. Moreover, the Israeli closure of the Gaza Strip’s only import border crossing, Karem Shalom, has closed off the only source of imports.
The Gaza Strip’s collapsing public infrastructure means services are struggling to cope – in some sectors the damage may be irreversible. Health services, sewage and solid waste management are most seriously affected, compounding the existing humanitarian crisis and putting vulnerable children at increased risk.
Addressing the blockade by easing access and movement restrictions, supporting development projects and properly resourcing UNRWA and other humanitarian actors are essential steps that must be taken now – first steps on the road towards an end to fear and violence and the renewal of hope for the children of the Gaza Strip.
*Not his real name