Hungry children are dying in Gaza as Israel’s chokehold on aid drives territory toward starvation


WARNING: This story contains images of severely malnourished children.

The dire situation at the Kamal Adwan Hospital in northern Gaza may be a warning sign for what’s to come in the rest of the besieged Palestinian territory.

Fifteen children have died at the facility in recent days from hunger and malnutrition as Gaza slowly runs out of food for its 2.3 million people, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry.

“Mothers are not able to nurse their babies or give them immunities,” said Dr. Ahmed Al-Kahlot, who’s been tending to the most serious cases.

“If the mother herself suffers from malnutrition, how can she feed her baby?”

Video obtained by CBC News showed rows of tiny newborns in hospital incubators, with little formula or nutrition, struggling to make it through their first days of life. Some did not.

One grieving mother, Anwar Abdulnabi, wailed as she clutched the body of her daughter, Mila, who she said died from a calcium and potassium deficiency.

Dr. Ahmed Al-Kahlot has been tending to the most serious cases of child malnutrition at the Kamal Adwan Hospital in northern Gaza.
Dr. Ahmed Al-Kahlot has been tending to the most serious cases of child malnutrition at the Kamal Adwan Hospital in northern Gaza. (Mohamed El Saife/CBC)

Al-Kahlot said severe dehydration has compromised the immune systems of many children, making them especially vulnerable to infection and disease. The only solution, he said, is to give them more food and water, of which there is very little.

But aid groups say Israel, which is at war with Hamas, is at worst deliberately withholding food aid for Gaza, or at the very least doing too little to expedite its movement into the territory.

‘My siblings fall asleep hungry’

Among Gaza’s hunger victims this week was Yazan al-Kafarna, a nine-year-old boy born with cerebral palsy.

The shocking video and images of his almost skeletal limbs and sunken eyes were picked up by news agencies and shown around the world.

His father, Ashraf, told CBC News that his son slowly wasted away after the fresh fruit and other food he needed for his diet disappeared from Gaza, and there weren’t any substitutes available.

“Before the war, we could get the food he needed. Now all the food that I used to get him before the war is not available.”

Yazan al-Kafarna spent his final hours in a hospital in Gaza, too weak to move from his hospital bed, with his father Ashraf at his side.
Nine-year-old Yazan al-Kafarna, with his father, Ashraf, at his side, spent his final hours in a hospital in Gaza, too weak to move. He died on Monday, one of Gaza’s hunger victims. (Mohamed El Saife/CBC)

Yazan died in a hospital in Rafah, in southern Gaza, on Monday morning.

With roughly 1.9 million people displaced from their homes due to Israeli airstrikes, and with hungry families crowded together in shelters or tent cities, there’s often fierce competition for the limited food that is available.

Ghazal Al-Hajj Hassan, 13, grew up in northern Gaza’s Jabalia refugee camp, and she and her family are now sheltering from the war in a nearby school.

“There’s no food,” she told a videographer working for CBC News. “My siblings fall asleep hungry.”

Ghazal said she often suffers from dehydration, and the constant lack of food means when she is able to find something to eat, it can make her feel sick.

“When there’s a meal of stew, people attack each other and hit and steal from each other,” she said.

WATCH | Doctors in Gaza hospital struggle to help malnourished children:

Inside a Gaza hospital where doctors struggle to treat malnourished, dehydrated children

Dr. Bilal Al-Shafi’i, who works in Rafah in southern Gaza, says children are arriving at hospital ‘like a corpse’ as they face severe dehydration and malnutrition. Warning: This video contains scenes of malnourished children.

Scarce food supplies bring chaos

With sporadic fighting between the militant group Hamas and Israeli forces in northern Gaza — and almost no civil organization to distribute the scarce food supplies when they arrive — the result has been scenes of chaos.

The World Food Program stopped making deliveries to the north on Feb. 20, citing a precarious security situation that put its staff in danger.

The United Nations agency attempted to restart deliveries on Tuesday by sending a convoy to the north from Rafah, at the Egyptian border, but 14 trucks were turned back by Israeli forces after a three-hour wait at a checkpoint. After being turned away, the agency said a desperate crowd looted the trucks and took the food.

Last week, at least 112 people were killed after a huge crowd tried to access truckloads of flour that had just crossed over from Israel. Witnesses say many of the dead were killed by Israeli troops who opened fire on them, while Israel claims the majority died in a stampede.

The incident underscores the duelling narratives of where the blame lies for Gaza’s hunger crisis.

War broke out in Gaza after Hamas led attacks on southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing about 1,200 people and taking about 250 hostage, Israel says. More than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since war broke out, Gaza health officials say.

Ceasefire negotiations have so far failed to bear fruit, with Hamas refusing to release the 100 hostages it still holds and the remains of about 30 more unless Israel ends its bombardment of Gaza and releases Palestinian prisoners. Not long after war broke out, Israel said the delivery of aid to Gaza was tied to the release of the hostages.

“Aid is going in,” Mark Regev, a senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told CNN. “The trouble is the internal distribution inside Gaza. And there, there are security challenges.”

But that assessment is fiercely contested by aid groups that claim Israel is wielding hunger as a weapon against Palestinian civilians to get concessions from Hamas.

Number of aid trucks declining: UN

“To us, this is definitely a matter of collective punishment to the people of Palestine,” said Diana Sarosi, director of policy and campaigns for Oxfam Canada. “You cannot punish a population of 2.2 million people for what happened on that day.”

Sarosi said Israeli officials are conducting overly stringent inspections of trucks entering from southern crossings, such as at Rafah and Kerem Shalom, with many aid trucks being turned back needlessly.

“Since the war started, only about 15 per cent [of aid shipments] that should have gone in in this five-month period have gone in.”

Before Oct. 7, the main crossing for cargo, Kerem Shalom, had a capacity to process up to 1,000 trucks a day, with 500 crossings being the norm.

A man hands out food as children wait in line.
Children line up to receive food at a charity kitchen amid shortages of food supplies, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on Tuesday. (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)

A report by UNRWA, the UN’s relief agency, said the average number of aid trucks arriving in Gaza in February from both crossing points was just 98 trucks a day — 50 per cent lower than in January.

Oxfam’s position is echoed by other humanitarian groups, including the Norwegian Refugee Council, which has 46 staff members on the ground in Gaza distributing a range of assistance, from food and tents to personal items.

Shaina Low, the group’s spokesperson, told CBC News that Israel has deliberately targeted many of the security staff and Palestinian police officers in Gaza who have accompanied aid trucks, perhaps believing them to be Hamas militants.

“Basically, these are civil servants. They aren’t part of the Hamas military wing,” she said.

“And since these police officers have been targeted, they will no longer accompany aid convoys, which leads to a further deterioration of law and order in Gaza.”

Low said her group is aware of nine instances where people attempting to secure food shipments have been attacked by Israeli forces.

WATCH | Aid efforts need protection: 

Rock calls for ‘protective force’

Allan Rock, Canada’s former ambassador to the UN, says until a ceasefire is reached in the Israel-Hamas war, a protective force made up of several countries including Canada could help ensure that humanitarian aid gets to the people of Gaza.

Humanitarian groups call for ceasefire

Humanitarian groups, including the World Food Program, UNICEF and Oxfam, say the only way to alleviate the food shortage is for an immediate ceasefire and then to “deconflict” or secure the main routes through Gaza to ensure that food trucks can safely reach their destinations.

This week, the U.S. administration for the first time suggested that members of Israel’s cabinet were deliberately holding up aid and contributing to the starvation for political reasons.

Hard-right Israeli politicians such as National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir have repeatedly called for Israel to block all shipments of aid to Gaza — including food — until Hamas returns all of the Israeli hostages it now holds following the Oct. 7 attacks.

Palestinian children wait to receive food cooked by a charity kitchen amid shortages of food supplies, as the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas continues, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, March 5, 2024.
Palestinian children wait to receive food cooked at a charity kitchen, in Rafah on Tuesday. Aid groups in Gaza say the number of trucks bringing in food has been falling. (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)

For months, protesters associated with the far-right Otzma Yehudit party have been staging protests at the border crossings with Gaza, aimed at disrupting shipments.

Andreas Krieg, an associate professor in the School of Security Studies at King’s College in London, said Israel’s government hasn’t tried to hide the fact that it sees the denial of humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza as a means to punish Hamas.

“Humanitarian assistance has been weaponized from Day 1,” he said.

“When [Yoav] Gallant, the defence minister, said that they would cut off electricity and water supply to Gaza, that was the first clear indication that Israel was not going to abide by international humanitarian law.”

Airdropping aid called PR exercise

Several countries, including the United States, have started to airdrop food into Gaza, with the U.S. indicating it has delivered roughly 38,000 ready-to-eat meals. Canada’s international development minister, Ahmed Hussen, said late last month that the federal government is looking into airdropping aid into Gaza.

But critics, including Oxfam and the Norwegian Refugee Council, say such measures amount to little more than a public relations exercise, as a single truck can carry the same amount as three Hercules aircraft.

“For the size of the population in Gaza, it would take hundreds and hundreds of airplanes flying every day,” Oxfam’s Sarosi said.

A group of people protest as soldiers look on.
People protesting the delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza until all hostages held by Hamas are released are shown at Israel’s Nitzana border crossing with Egypt on Tuesday. (Leo Correa/The Associated Press)

Officials with the U.S. State Department have said they are trying to push Israel to open more border crossings,  especially in the north of Gaza, and even to establish a possible maritime supply route.

But Gaza has no operational port facilities, and Krieg said even if supplies could be brought into a beachhead, they would face the same security and distribution challenges as food that arrives on trucks.

Instead, he said, the U.S. should tie its more than $3 billion in annual military support for Israel to the provision of more food aid to Palestinians. “If you withdraw or withhold aid and put a conditionality on that aid, and say, ‘You get that … support only if you allow humanitarian aid to come in,’ it would be a done deal,” Krieg said.

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