For over a month the world has watched events in Israel and Gaza aghast. First the abhorrent attack on Israeli civilians on October 7th, those taken hostage, and the conflict that has engulfed Gaza since then, killing a child every ten minutes. Nobody wants to see this continue, but the debate about how to stop it feels like it’s going nowhere. Well-meaning people disagree fiercely about what must be done. But leading an organisation that has worked in conflict zones around the world for more than a century, I know that anything short of a ceasefire will be woefully insufficient.
The level of humanitarian need is beyond comprehension. More than 10,000 people have been reported killed, more than 25,000 injured, numbers that are soaring by the hour. Even before the current escalation of violence, 80% of people in Gaza had to rely on aid to get by. The bombardment means that around 2% of the “normal” levels of aid can get in, but the situation is far from “normal”. 1.5 million people have been displaced, over a third of hospitals are shut. People are queuing up to six hours a day for bread. 242 Israelis, including 30 children are being held hostage. I can’t imagine how terrified these children must be.
Save the Children, alongside other organisations, has managed to get a small amount of aid in, when the Rafah crossing to Egypt has been opened. A small number of trucks have carried water and medical supplies, and our colleagues who remain in Gaza are doing what they can to help others while hoping they and their families can survive themselves. This is a drop in the ocean though. Frankly, it’s barely better than nothing. We are standing by to provide much more support as soon as we can, with supplies pre-positioned, agreements in place with partners and our Emergency Health Unit preparing to deploy to Egypt. But we can do nothing without access.
We have said loud and clear – in fact we’ve even projected it onto the Houses of Parliament – that the only solution is a ceasefire. We’ve been called naïve for this. Yet over the weekend France’s President Macron was spot on when he said that “there is no other solution than first a humanitarian pause, going to a ceasefire”. We know that voices on both sides this conflict have said they don’t want a ceasefire. We know that we are a very long way from one. But children in Gaza have no other option. As distant as it feels, it is unconscionable not to try, and it will never happen without diplomatic pressure from countries like the UK. This must be an urgent priority for David Cameron in his first days as Foreign Secretary.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres described Gaza as a “graveyard for children”. More children have been killed in this conflict than in all conflicts put together in any single year since 2019 – we can’t stand by and let this continue, however hard it might be to end it.
Four-hour humanitarian pauses have been tried as an alternative. These may briefly stop violence, but they can’t stop hunger, dehydration, or disease. They can’t rebuild homes or re-open hospitals. They can’t get anywhere near enough water, fuel or food into Gaza, or allow time for it to be distributed. We run humanitarian response operations in some of the toughest places in the world, and we know it’s not possible to do that effectively in four hours – or even four weeks – let alone in Gaza which is the deadliest place in the world to be an aid worker, with over 100 tragically killed to date. This is why we’re calling for a ceasefire, it’s not because we’re naïve but because we’re experts.
We’ve got to think about what happens after that, too. The immediate context is of course the horrific attack of 7th October, but we all know that the tensions are decades old. We cannot just return to the status quo of the 6th October. We cannot allow children across the region to continue growing up in fear and without hope.
In the West Bank (where settler violence against Palestinians has escalated in the last month), restrictions on movement, demolitions of their homes and schools, forced displacement and military detention have severely hampered children’s life-chances. In Gaza, the long-term impacts of five previous military escalations, and an ongoing blockade of over 15 years, expose children to frequent violence and constant deprivation.
This is not sustainable nor just, and if any light is to come from these dark days, it is vital that a ceasefire is the first step, not the last. It must be a route to a peace process that has the voices and hopes of Palestinian and Israeli children at its heart, to seek to build a future that can fulfil their dreams. We must have no less ambition for these children than we would for our own.
Eglantyne Jebb, who founded Save the Children over 100 years ago, said “humanity owes the child the best it has to give.” Nobody could claim that we are currently giving our best to Palestinian or Israeli children. But we can’t do better until the fighting stops.
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