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Gaza’s children: Victims of war or superheroes?

December 1, 2023 at 11:35 am

25-year-old Palestinian English teacher Tariq al-Annabi continues to afford teaching English to children who took refuge with their families at Taha Hussein School after Israeli attacks following the extension of the ‘humanitarian pause’ in Rafah, Gaza on November 29, 2023. [Mustafa Hassona – Anadolu Agency]

To be a child in Gaza is living on borrowed time.

The footage of a Palestinian fetus dead in a Gaza hospital last month, after the mother was killed in an Israeli air strike, showed the world the horrors of giving birth and being born in the besieged enclave.

From mass killing and maiming, to strikes on overcrowded houses, schools, bakeries, hospitals and shelters for the displaced as well as the denial of access to food, medicine, clean water and humanitarian aid; all crimes under international law, children in Gaza continue to suffer under Israel’s relentless attacks.

According to the latest updates by the Palestinian Ministry of Health, Israeli forces have killed at least 6,100 Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip in 48 days of intense fighting since 7 October. There are an additional 1,500 children missing under the rubble of destroyed buildings, most of whom are presumed dead.

The numbers are five times higher than the number of children killed by US coalition forces in Iraq between 2003 and 2011, where the figure was 1,201 children. In Gaza, 130 Palestinian children are being killed every day, that’s more than the child death toll in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya combined. Israeli forces have killed twice as many Palestinian children in Gaza since 7 October than the total number of Palestinian children killed in the West Bank and Gaza combined since 1967.

While in other parts of the world birth-giving heralds a new life and a moment of joy, in Gaza it is overshadowed by death and horror. The UN estimates that 5,500 pregnant women are expected to give birth in December in Gaza, where most healthcare facilities are no longer able to operate. Destruction coupled with insufficient clean water and sanitation are creating multiple health risks, including for women who have no access to hygiene kits or anesthetic should they need medical care or a C-section.

UNICEF spokesperson: Bombings near full-capacity Gaza Hospital, ‘war on children’

In the latest Israeli onslaught on the Gaza Strip, child healthcare facilities have been the subject of indiscriminate attacks. Israeli missiles and fighter jets hit Al-Rantisi Pediatric Hospital more than once, striking the pediatric cancer ward and the specialised children’s centre, resulting in deaths and injuries including among children and medical staff. The same Israeli attacks destroyed the hospital’s solar panels and water tanks. Dozens of children had been receiving treatment at Al-Rantisi Children’s Hospital and at least 1,000 displaced Palestinians had been seeking refuge there.

UN OCHA has increasingly sounded alarm bells over growing cases of chickenpox, diarrhea and upper respiratory infections among children at extremely crowded shelters across the Gaza Strip. The lack of safe places has generated a deep-seated sense of fear and horror among children. Children have also started to show symptoms of severe trauma developing into post-traumatic stress disorder, convulsions, anxiety, aggressive behaviour and nocturnal enuresis (involuntary bed-wetting).

In Gaza, children are living under constant bombardment, with tens of thousands crammed into shelters in UN schools after being forced to flee their homes with no access to food or clean water. The situation is so dire, in some shelters 400 displaced Palestinians share one toilet.

But the issue is much more complex than being just a matter of numbers.

In studying the impact of conflict on Palestinian children, who make up about half of Gaza’s 2.3 million population, we should pay heed to the voices of these children themselves. Perhaps nowhere else in the world do children think of themselves as bearers of the anti-occupation, decolonisation struggle than in Gaza. While children’s sense of selfhood is typically nurtured by a simple moment of play, in Gaza it is rather nurtured by an inherent commitment towards a sacred struggle. Thus by throwing a stone at an Israeli soldier, playing a gun shooting game outdoors, or painting a tableau of a Palestinian flag flying over Al-Aqsa Mosque, children in Gaza are carving out a space of their own as their nation’s ‘knight in shining armour’.

Read: At least 101 children killed in the West Bank this year

“As my parents were killed in the war, I should watch over my sister”; “Our homeland is not for sale”; “Does Israel think that by killing my father we will be leaving our home? By no means”; “The occupation killed my entire family and I should take revenge”; “I was born in a refugee camp and knew that our land was taken away from us and we shall get it back sooner or later”; “I grew up to the voice of my grandmother telling me to never throw in the towel”. These are just some of the phrases verbalised by Gaza’s children and which have gone viral on social media since 7 October. Their words are yet another sign that the course for understanding Gaza’s children is characterised by a set of self-descriptions that have roots in resistance, regardless of the ultimate consequences.

UNRWA chief says 70% of Gaza victims are children, women - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor] 

UNRWA chief says 70% of Gaza victims are children, women – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Perhaps subconsciously, children in Gaza depict themselves as superheroes that are engaged in an existential battle against a colonial power that has not only taken away their land, but also their right to play, to a happy childhood, undisturbed education, a safe home, warm family, non-violent treatment and unconditional protection from war and fighting. As such, they show a complex understanding of the anti-occupation struggle as one that not only revolves around resisting a military occupation of the land but as a struggle for identity, selfhood and a sense of belonging connected to a history of resistance that has been going on for over 75 years.

It is a way of thinking and living deeply rooted in a sense of self-awareness, deeply rooted  in  the motherland, resistance and a mindset that has taken it upon itself to continue the struggle until the last gasp of air. The latest bombing campaign has revealed how Gaza’s children are able to think and analyse the situations related to the occupation of Palestine in a complex and forward-looking manner which is well ahead of their years.

From within the mounds of rubble into which their homes have been turned and the missile flames that burned the bodies of their families, Gaza’s children emerge as superheroes who have not only succeeded in dismantling Israel’s self-proclaimed identity as the sole partner for peace in the Middle East, but also to stand at the cutting edge of an entire nation’s decolonisation struggle.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.