Children of Gaza absorb worst impact of Israel's 'war on Hamas'
Losing their childhood and all familiar aspects of life, living in constant fear amid terrifying scenes, these are the worst sufferers of Israel's retaliation against Palestine for the Hamas attack
According to Israeli authorities, when the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which governs Gaza, crossed over into Israel on 7 October in a shock attack, it took back 38 children and teenagers as hostages.
Reports by Israeli media have amplified that the youngest of these hostages was a baby 9 months old at the time. According to Israel's Ministry of Welfare and Social Affairs, the attack also left 18 children orphaned, 16 of whom lost both parents and two were children of single mothers; in addition, three children have lost one parent, with the other declared "missing" (Israeli authorities believe kidnapped by Hamas).
Hamas is designated a terrorist organization by the European Union, the United States, Germany and some other countries, in addition to Israel.
However, in the month and a half since, Israeli retaliation has seen more than 4,600 children killed, with nearly 9,000 reported injured, according to figures from the health ministry in Gaza released last week.
For children in Gaza, "life has become a living hell"
Hind Wishah, her husband and three children left the northern part of the Gaza Strip only days ago. The area has been under intense Israeli air bombardment and heavy fighting between Israeli ground forces and Palestinian militants for weeks. Her daughter Salma is 11, and the two young boys, Mohammed and Majid, are 9 and 4 years old, respectively.
"Our life has become a living hell in every sense of the word. My children were screaming constantly. I cried with them, sometimes screaming alongside," she said on a shaky phone line from Rafah, a city in the south of Gaza where the family is seeking shelter. "The fear of death looms over us every moment."
During their last week at home in Gaza City, the family had to ration the little water and food supplies they had left. Her children, Wishah said, are the most precious things in her life.
"Salma often asks, 'If I die, what will happen to my belongings? Will they come with me to heaven?'"
Being unable to provide safety and security to a child is the most painful experience for a parent, Wishah added.
"They endured a month of terror and fear that will linger in their memories. I'm grateful to God that we are still alive, and my children are safe, but we yearn for someone to rescue us from this profound hell and lead us to an ending that will bring us back to our destroyed home."
'Gaza is becoming a graveyard for children'
Wishah isn't alone with her experience — tens of thousands of Palestinian parents in Gaza are dealing with the same situation.
Gaza has a young population: nearly half (47.3%) of the 2.2 million residents are under the age of 18, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.
So far, an estimated 1.5 million residents in Gaza have been displaced by the war, among them at least 700,000 children, according to UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund.
Gaza's youngsters are used to dealing with hardships and military escalation. Since 2007, Gaza has been under a strict land and sea blockade by Israel and partially by Egypt, after the Hamas militant group took power from the Palestinian Authority.
Israel has strictly controlled the movement of people and goods in and out of the territory, effectively isolating it from the rest of the world. And for many minors, this is the fifth time they've had to endure an all-out war zone.
And it's the worst so far.
"Gaza is becoming a graveyard for children. Hundreds of girls and boys are reportedly being killed or injured every day," said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in early November.
After a visit to Gaza on 15 November, UNICEF executive director Catherine Russell warned in a statement that 'the parties to the conflict are committing grave violations against children; these include killing, maiming, abductions, attacks on schools and hospitals, and the denial of humanitarian access — all of which UNICEF condemns'.
She added that many children are missing and believed to be buried under the rubble, 'the tragic result of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Meanwhile, newborn babies who require specialised care have died in one of Gaza's hospitals as power and medical supplies run out'.
Six weeks into the war, people in Gaza have been left to fend for themselves, with only limited help on the way.
Israel has kept its border crossings shut since the Hamas attack of 7 October. Few trucks with international aid have been able to cross from Egypt through the Rafah crossing, and most Palestinians are trapped in the tiny enclave.
As if dealing with the most urgent daily necessities, such as finding nutritious food, clean drinking water and a functioning toilet wasn't enough, Rania Mushtasha also fears the immense impact this war is having on her children.
"The children can't attend school, meet friends or even connect over the internet, which is unavailable. Children are the most affected by the war, losing their childhood and the familiar aspects of life, living in constant fear amid terrifying scenes," the 46-year-old mother told DW by phone, adding that her kids can only sleep if they are close to their parents.
The family of seven used to live in the Shijaiyah area in the east of Gaza City. They had to leave their homes early in the war and have moved twice since. Now they are staying with relatives in the town of Deir al-Balah, in the southern Gaza Strip.
"When we hear news on the radio, especially my eldest daughter Rana asks, 'Will this happen to us, too? I don't want to die.' It's challenging to comfort her when she sees fear in my eyes and witnesses me crying due to bombings, fear and the deteriorating conditions," said Mushtasha.
For many Gazan children, they live in a state of war always in the occupied territory of Palestine. This time is only different in being far, far worse than they were used to.
"My young child frequently asks why this war is different and when it will end," Mushtasha says.
"I struggle to find an answer, hoping it will end soon."
What about Israel's children?
The children living in southern Israel are also suffering. Sapir Fischer-Turgeman is a mother of two from the city of Ashkelon, a coastal town near Gaza. She completed her compulsory military service as a communications officer in the IDF in 2015, and relates how her children's behaviour has changed since the conflict began.
"We noticed one of our kids is much more aggressive and impatient," she said, despite her and her partner's best efforts to keep the kids as protected as possible from the flow of information about the fighting.
Other parents in Israel also report their children are not willing to sleep in their beds out of fear. One 8-year-old child can only fall asleep while under her bed.
"It's hard for them to stay at home the whole time, but there is no choice as there are barely any safe areas to protect ourselves from rockets on the streets and near playing grounds in Ashkelon," said Fischer-Turgeman for her own young family.
This article uses edited inputs from DW