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In the ruins of Gaza, children are starving to death and there’s no cease-fire in sight

Five months after Hamas launched multipronged attacks on Israel, almost half of Gaza’s buildings lie in ruins and at least 30,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to the enclave’s Health Ministry, which, along with aid agencies, is warning that some of the most vulnerable children in the territory have begun to starve to death.

The Israeli military controls swaths of the Gaza Strip, and it has threatened to attack Rafah, a southern city where 1.5 million Palestinians have fled, unless a cease-fire deal is reached by next week. Israel has not achieved its military goals: destroying Hamas in response to its Oct. 7 attacks, which killed 1,200 people, and rescuing the 100-plus remaining hostages taken that day. It is unclear whether either is even possible.

Abroad, the worsening humanitarian tragedy has heaped international pressure on Israel. Even friends such as the U.S., which gives Israel $3 billion in weapons and other military aid every year, have joined the chorus, rhetorically at least, pressuring Israel urgently to allow more aid into the enclave, where Palestinians are huddled in encampments and sleeping on the streets.

The U.S. is also sponsoring talks in Egypt to negotiate a cease-fire by the start of Ramadan, the Muslim holy fasting month, which begins Sunday. That could mean a hostage-prisoner swap, a halt in fighting and a new flow of aid into Gaza. But large disagreements persist, and there is little sign of a breakthrough.

“When children are starting” to “die from starvation, that should be a warning like no other,” Jens Laerke, a spokesperson for the United Nations humanitarian office, said at a news briefing Tuesday. “If not now, when is the time to pull the stops, break the glass, flood Gaza with the aid that it needs?”

Displaced Palestinian women raise a white flag as they are shadowed by Israeli forces while they flee Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on Tuesday.AFP – Getty Images

The raw statistics are grim.

American and U.N. officials have said the death toll given by the Palestinian Health Ministry, which is controlled by Hamas, is likely to be an undercount. Aid workers on the ground estimate thousands more people remain buried under the rubble of destroyed buildings. 

About 80% of the population, or 1.9 million people, has been forced to flee their homes, according to the U.N., some up to half a dozen times because of the Israeli military push southward. Around 60% of the buildings in Gaza have been damaged, 45% of them destroyed — including schools, hospitals, bakeries, mosques and thousands of homes — according to research by the World Bank.

Even by the scarce standards of Gaza, which Israel and Egypt have blockaded for 16 years, there are shortages of everything: water, food, fuel, electricity and medicine. The U.S. has sent several aid drops into Gaza in recent days, but even if they are successful, they will not solve the issue. With desperation mounting, more than 100 Palestinians were killed last week in a chaotic encounter with Israeli troops around an aid convoy.

The lack of clean water means diseases such as diarrhea and hepatitis are rife. The lack of food means people are simply starving to death, according to local doctors and international aid workers.

Food Distribution Gaza
Civilians gather to collect food from an aid distribution point in Beit Lahia in northern Gaza on Feb. 26.AFP – Getty Images

Gaza’s Health Ministry has reported that at least 16 children have died since last week as a result of malnutrition and dehydration. It has also expressed concerns for six infants who it said were being treated for malnutrition at Kamal Adwan hospital in the town of Beit Lahia.

Some had underlying health conditions, like Yazan Kafarneh, 10, who was recorded by an NBC News crew before he died Monday. Yazan had been dependent upon a special diet, such as blended fruit and milk, items now unavailable in Gaza, doctors told Reuters. 

Pictures showing the emaciated boy covered in blankets and receiving fluids intravenously were widely shared on social media after he died.  

After the U.N. warned last week that famine in Gaza was “almost inevitable,” Adele Khodr, the regional director of the U.N.’s children’s agency, UNICEF, warned Sunday that “the child deaths we feared are here as malnutrition ravages the Gaza Strip.”

The World Health Organization, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and the World Food Program have issued similar warnings. 

Khan Younis Morgue
Palestinian women mourn at the European hospital morgue in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on Tuesday.Said Khatib / AFP – Getty Images

People in Gaza have been “totally dehumanized, deprived of their own dignity and their human well-being,” said Dalal Iriqat, a Palestinian associate professor of diplomacy at the Arab American University, based in the occupied West Bank. “Let alone the fact that they have lost all their property, their homes and in many cases their family members.”

She shares the view of many Palestinians that the war is not about Hamas at all but rather about what they see as a thinly veiled, decadeslong desire by the Israeli government to push them out of Gaza and repopulate it with Israelis.

Far-right members of the Israeli government coalition have openly supported the idea of expelling Palestinians from Gaza, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly denied that is his policy.

Unbowed by international pressure to ease off his military assault, Netanyahu remains adamant the country must eliminate Hamas, which does not recognize Israel’s existence and is a banned terrorist group in the West.

The 134 remaining hostages, some of whom are believed to be dead, are a constant and growing torment not just for their campaigning families but also for the nation and the Jewish diaspora as a whole. In a report Tuesday, which many saw as long overdue, the U.N. said there was “clear and convincing” evidence that women and children had been subjected to “sexual violence, including rape” and “sexualized torture,” after the Oct. 7 attacks. The hostages in Gaza may still be suffering the same treatment, it said.

Polls indicate most Israelis support the war in Gaza.

“What happened on Oct. 7 is very much still vivid in the Israeli mindset,” said Nimrod Goren, a Jerusalem-based senior fellow for Israeli affairs at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. “Even people who have lost all faith in Netanyahu still believe that the military objectives that were stated were the right ones to pursue — it’s very different to where the international discourse is at.”

Militarily, Israel controls most of northern Gaza, as well as swaths of the south, according to a rolling analysis by the Institute for the Study of War, a nonprofit think tank in Washington. It began a relentless bombing campaign of Gaza hours after Hamas’ attack, and on Oct. 27 it launched a land invasion.

Netanyahu has heavily signaled that he intends to attack Rafah next, believing it to be the location of four Hamas battalions. The government has instructed people sheltering there to evacuate once again, to which many of them respond: where?

Israeli soldiers stand, near the Israel-Gaza border, in Israel
Israeli soldiers near the Gaza border Monday.Ammar Awad / Reuters

Another problem for Israel is that Hamas has not been totally purged from the north, with some locals and analysts seeing signs it has been regrouping in pockets outside Israeli control. Israel says it has killed as many as 10,000 Hamas fighters. Both that figure and the number of Hamas members in total are unconfirmed, making it difficult to understand the extent to which the group has been truly weakened.

Israel may be able to eradicate the militants and their bases. But harder to kill are the ideas behind the group: at once virulently antisemitic and reviled in the West but also seen as a bastion of resistance by many Palestinians who feel that every other avenue, peaceful or otherwise, has been thwarted.

“A major failure — one I think that is deliberate — is the failure to prepare for the ‘day after,’” said Michael Horowitz, the head of intelligence at Le Beck International, a security and risk management consultancy.  

“There is no one to take over authority in Gaza, not even the beginning of a solution.”

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