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Gaza's children are being starved to death: MEMO in Conversation with Alexandra Saieh

This Palestinian Children's Day Israel is blocking the entry of lifesaving humanitarian aid into Gaza and starving minors to death. Charities are unable to access aid that is waiting on the other side of the border and parts of Gaza remain completely off limits to them because of the occupation forces' siege. Thousands face death, scores may have already died of malnutrition but we just don't know about them, Save the Children's tells MEMO.

April 5, 2024 at 10:00 am



As Israel’s war on Gaza enters its seventh month, conditions in the besieged Strip have worsened. Palestinian children now face hunger and severe malnutrition as Israel deliberately prevents humanitarian access to Gaza, which means aid organisations are unable to reach those most in need. Tel Aviv’s attacks on hospitals, homes, neighbourhoods and refugee camps means people are unable to reach health facilities to get the care they need. Most people are living below the radar and so the scale of the crisis is not being captured in officially released statistics. MEMO in Conversation is joined by Alexandra Saieh, head of Save the Children’s humanitarian policy and advocacy, to discuss the scale of the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding and how the charity is trying to respond to it.

Based in Washington, DC. Saieh has worked for leading humanitarian organisations across the Middle East and North Africa region, including Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia, and the occupied Palestinian territory, for the past 12 years. Her expertise lies in humanitarian and conflict issues, including displacement, migration, humanitarian access, protection of civilians and the challenges in post-conflict recovery contexts.

Children in Gaza are resorting to eating grass and drinking contaminated sea water as families find it increasingly hard to secure food amidst the war and siege imposed by Israel since October 2023.

A report by Save the Children reveals that nearly 1.1 million children in Gaza are facing starvation after nearly five months of war and dwindling aid supplies. Shocking accounts from aid workers describe people taking desperate measures such as scavenging for food, eating animal feed, leaves and rat scraps in a desperate bid to fend off hunger.

READ: ActionAid UK: 70% of people are at risk of famine at the moment in Gaza

“When children face severe, acute malnutrition, they’re at higher risk of dying of common diseases, like diarrhoea or pneumonia and malnutrition, especially when it’s acute,” Alexandra Saieh, head of humanitarian policy and advocacy at Save the Children International tells MEMO.

“It impacts children both in the short term and long term. Their muscles waste away, their cognitive and physical abilities are severely affected and can lead to stunting. So the physical harm that we’re seeing imposed on Palestinian children today will mean physical harm in the long term as well. This is something that we really need to keep in mind,” she warns.

At least 25 people, including children and babies, have died of starvation and dehydration in the north of the enclave, according to the Ministry of Health in Gaza. Mothers struggle to breastfeed due to malnutrition, while parents plead for infant formula at overwhelmed health facilities.

According to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), all 2.2 million Gazans face food shortages, with half of the population teetering on the edge of starvation. The north is expected to face famine between mid-March and May 2024.

This crisis, deemed “entirely man-made” and “preventable,” is attributed to Israel’s restriction of aid and extensive destruction of Gaza. The IPC warns that famine will escalate unless hostilities cease immediately and full aid access is granted to the region.

About 210,000 residents of northern Gaza are already in the “Catastrophe Phase” of food insecurity, the IPC has warned.

A graphic showing the the statistic that people in the north of Gaza have been forced to survive on an average of 245 calories a day

The figures, while distressing, only scratch the surface of the crisis, with many deaths likely going unrecorded, Saieh explains. She describes the heartbreaking reality faced by mothers forced to leave hospitals immediately after childbirth due to lack of support, resulting in infant deaths from malnutrition and unsanitary conditions in overcrowded shelters.

“We believe that in reality, the stats of 25 children dying from starvation so far is just the tip of the iceberg. These are the children whose parents actually managed to bring them to health facilities to try to get some help, and who have been recorded.”

“One of my colleagues who was at one of the hospitals in Gaza said doctors had to discharge mothers immediately after delivering babies because they don’t have the capacity to support them. And then the children, babies and infants, just go back to the shelters and die because the mother is not able to feed her child.”

Addressing the famine, Alexandra notes that in most cases, individuals, including children and adults, perish from malnutrition long before famine is officially declared. By the time organisations or governments acknowledge famine, people are already dying from severe malnutrition and disease. This grim reality is evident in Gaza now, where the devastating effects of prolonged malnutrition are already claiming hundreds of lives.

Israel’s ongoing war against Gaza, now in its sixth month, has resulted in the deaths of at least 32,975 Palestinians, with 75,577 others injured amid mass destruction and shortages of necessities. And the inability to safely deliver aid due to continued fighting and Israeli bombardment has exacerbated the crisis.

The UN reports that over 50 per cent of aid delivery missions to the worst-affected areas have been denied by Israeli occupation forces, with instances of convoys carrying food supplies being fired at.

“Conditions to provide meaningful humanitarian assistance in Gaza are not present,” Saieh says.

Save the Children has worked in horrific contexts facing incredible challenges and incredible limitations. We have seen nothing like what we’re seeing in Gaza.

She highlights the case of the Israeli air strikes that killed seven World Central Kitchen staff and the alarming number of aid workers, including doctors and healthcare providers, killed over the past six months, emphasising the urgent need for a secure system to facilitate humanitarian aid deliveries in Gaza.

Despite aid organisations providing their operational coordinates to Israeli authorities for safety, aid workers continue to face serious risks, making it life-threatening to provide assistance.

“This is primarily what’s making it unsafe to deliver humanitarian assistance in Gaza and as a result, having a massive detrimental impact on the population in northern Gaza, as well as those in southern Gaza as well. We’re seeing catastrophic levels of food insecurity in all parts of Gaza and this is really the crux of the issue,” Saieh says.

Another major obstacle hindering aid deliveries are the slow and restrictive Israeli inspections at crossing points. Essential items, including water purification devices and medical supplies, are often denied entry or delayed, severely impacting the ability to provide effective assistance.

For months, only two crossings have been made available for aid to enter the Strip, leaving large portions of the population, particularly in northern Gaza, without vital aid.

READ: Israel approves reopening of additional crossing to allow aid into Gaza

The failure to address these challenges not only intensifies the suffering of the Palestinians, but also undermines the humanitarian efforts to alleviate the crisis, Saieh says, while criticising the lack of concrete action from the international community, urging governments to utilise their diplomatic leverage to address the root causes of the crisis.

This is the moment where we need governments to face the facts and make decisions that could save lives in Gaza.

Looking ahead, Saieh outlines the crucial role governments and humanitarian organisations play in mitigating such crises, emphasising the urgent need for funding for humanitarian aid in Gaza to be prioritised. Notably, she stresses the indispensable role organisations like UNRWA play in providing essential services to the population.

“UNRWA is the backbone of the humanitarian response, and any efforts to defund them amounts to depriving Palestinians and Gaza of the essentials needed to survive,” she explains.

Israel’s planned ground offensive in Rafah, where over a million Palestinians have taken refuge, is “horrifying”, Saieh says, considering the high concentration of civilians, especially children. With limited space and resources, the displaced Palestinians are packed closely together, with streets lined with makeshift tents.

“They have absolutely nowhere to go,” she said. “We’ve warned that if there is an expanded military incursion into that, we will see mass casualties, possibly on a scale that we haven’t seen before.”

As one Palestinian father whose family has been forcibly displaced to Rafah told Save the Children: “The streets are full of children. The whole of Gaza is in Rafah. People are stacked on top of one another… I can’t see a life for them [my children] anymore. We live in such a small place, we cannot breathe.”

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