Emaciated children seen in Gazan hospitals as hunger spreads throughout Strip

5 months into war, food shortages contributing to greater humanitarian catastrophe; doctor in northern Gaza, where situation is worst, says mothers malnourished, can’t breastfeed

Palestinian girls carry water containers along a street in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 3, 2024. (AFP)
Palestinian girls carry water containers along a street in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 3, 2024. (AFP)

Two Palestinian toddlers with sunken eyes and emaciated faces, one in a yellow cardigan and the other in a striped shirt, were lying side by side on a bed in a Gaza clinic, their thin, bony legs protruding from diapers that looked too big for them.

This was the scene on Monday at Al-Awda Health Center in Rafah, southern Gaza, where nurse Diaa Al-Shaer said children suffering from malnutrition and from a range of diseases were arriving in unprecedented numbers.

“We will face a large number of patients who suffer from this, which is malnutrition,” she said.

The toddler in the yellow cardigan, Ahmed Qannan, weighed 6 kg (13.2 lb), half of his pre-war body weight, according to his aunt, Israa Kalakh, who was by his side.

“His situation worsens each day. God protect us from what is coming,” she told Reuters.

Nearly five months into Israel’s operation in the Gaza Strip — aimed at rooting out Hamas following its October 7 onslaught — acute shortages of food have led to what the United Nations is describing as a nutrition crisis, part of a wider humanitarian catastrophe.

Children pose for a picture at a stand selling flatbread in Deir al-Balah in central Gaza on March 3, 2024. (AFP)

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said Sunday that 15 children had died of malnutrition or dehydration at Kamal Adwan Hospital in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza, the part of the enclave where the lack of food is most extreme. The figure could not be independently verified.

“The unofficial numbers can unfortunately be expected to be higher,” said World Health Organization spokesperson Christian Lindmeier.

The worsening hunger crisis has intensified criticism of Israel on the world stage, including from US Vice President Kamala Harris. She said Sunday that people in Gaza were starving, calling on Israel to do more to significantly increase the flow of aid.

Reuters obtained a video filmed on Saturday at Kamal Adwan, showing a woman, Anwar Abdulnabi, weeping over the body of her daughter Mila, a toddler, who had just died in her bed.

“My daughter, my beautiful daughter, my gentle daughter has passed away,” cried Abdulnabi. She later said through her tears that Mila had been suffering from calcium and potassium deficiencies, but did not specify what caused the child’s death.

Dr Ahmad Salem, who works in the hospital’s intensive care unit, said one of the factors in the high number of reported child deaths there was that new mothers were themselves malnourished.

“The mothers cannot breastfeed their children. We do not have formula milk. This has led to the deaths of children here in the intensive care unit. Also in the nursery, there are numerous deaths,” he said.

‘Helplessness and despair’

Deliveries of food aid to the whole of Gaza are falling far short of what is needed, and the problem is worse in the north because the only crossings where Israel allows trucks to pass are in the south. Some aid trucks have been seized by desperate crowds before they reach the north.

“The sense of helplessness and despair among parents and doctors in realizing that lifesaving aid, just a few kilometers away, is being kept out of reach, must be unbearable,” said Adele Khodr, UNICEF regional director for the Middle East and North Africa.

In its latest situation report, dated March 1, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said an average of about 97 trucks a day had been entering Gaza in February, down from about 150 in January and well short of the 500-a-day target.

People gather around a truck carrying humanitarian aid that was hit in a reported Israeli airstrike on the main coastal road in Deir el-Balah in central Gaza on March 3, 2024. (AFP)

UN agencies and humanitarian groups have blamed the shortfall on Israel’s actions, including the closure of land crossings into northern Gaza, ongoing military operations, and a complex system of Israeli checks of items bound for Gaza at the Kerem Shalom and Rafah crossings.

Israel says it does not restrict humanitarian or medical aid and has blamed the lack of deliveries on the capacity of aid agencies, repeatedly saying that it is approving more aid trucks for crossing than the agencies are able to deliver.

Trucks carrying aid into Gaza have intermittently been held up by Israeli protesters demonstrating against sending humanitarian aid to the Strip while hostages remained in Hamas captivity.

Israel on Sunday said it was going to attempt new methods of delivery of aid to the northern part of the Strip, including the possibility of entering through northern crossings or of aid convoys being secured by IDF troops. Israel has long accused Hamas of appropriating and stealing aid from an increasingly desperate civilian population.

More broadly, Israel blames the Hamas terror group for starting the war by launching a devastating onslaught on southern Israel on October 7 in which the terrorists murdered 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took 253 others hostage. It also accuses Hamas of using Gaza’s civilian population as human shields.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza said on Monday that at least 30,534 Palestinians have been killed and 71,920 have been wounded in Gaza since October 7. The terror group’s figures are unverified, do not differentiate between civilians and combatants, and list all the fatalities as caused by Israel — even those caused by hundreds of misfired rockets or otherwise by Palestinian fire.

Palestinian children transport water containers along a street in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 3, 2024. (AFP)

Israel has said it has killed some 13,000 Hamas members in Gaza fighting, in addition to some 1,000 killed in Israel in the aftermath of the terror group’s October 7 invasion.

Back at Al-Awda Health Center in Rafah, a 12-year-old boy named Yazan Al-Kafarna died on Monday. Filmed for Reuters on Saturday, he was pale and emaciated, with skeletal limbs.

Dr. Jabir Al-Shaar, head of the pediatric department at Abu Yousef Al-Najar Hospital in Rafah, where the boy was treated until he was transferred to Al-Awda, said Yazan had cerebral palsy and had been dependent upon a special diet such as blended fruit and milk, items now unavailable in Gaza.

The doctor attributed the boy’s death to malnutrition. The case was already becoming a cause celebre on Monday, being cited at a meeting of the UN General Assembly by Palestinian Authority envoy Riyad Mansour.

His mother, Um Yazan Al-Kafarna, spent the last days of his life by his side.

“He used to eat, drink, move, play, laugh. I used to play with him,” she said.

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