School gets underway in Gaza …sort of

Last week in Gaza, half a million children went back to school after a summer of war. The academic year started late; among other things, authorities had to check buildings for unexploded ordnance and scrub schools that had been used to shelter hundreds of thousands of displaced families. With dozens of schools still sheltering people, destroyed or simply too damaged to use, classrooms are more overcrowded than usual.

Children in Gaza have experienced three wars between Israel and Hamas over the past six years. This summer’s seven-week conflict was the longest and most destructive, with the highest number of people killed, injured and displaced from their homes. In a territory that measures only 25 miles in length and 7 in width at its broadest point, civilians have not been able to escape the fighting. As a result, children comprise a quarter of the total Palestinian dead.

School authorities decided to start this school year differently. For at least the first week — longer in some schools — academics were put on hold. Instead, visiting therapists or the school’s own teachers led children in art, drama and other creative activities like play therapy.

Therapist Mohmmad Kahloot said it helps him to see kids smiling again. “When they overcome such a catastrophe and smile, this gives us relief,” he said. “This gives us hope for tomorrow.”

His colleagues say after this summer, even the therapists in Gaza need therapy. So do parents.

The psychologist acknowledged that the stress of conflict can show up in different ways, and encouraged parents and families to try to put the war behind them.

That may be most difficult for families who have no home to return to. More than 50,000 people are still living in 19 United Nations-run schools.

[NPR]

The Norm in Gaza

Excerpts of an opinion piece by eminent political philosopher Noam Chomsky:

On July 17, Malaysian Airlines MH17 was shot down in Eastern Ukraine, killing 298 civilians. President Obama denounced it as an “outrage of unspeakable proportions.” His UN Ambassador thundered that “we must stop at nothing to determine who is responsible and to bring them to justice.”

With the Israeli attack on Gaza in July [which to date has killed nearly 1800], President Obama spoke out of his “strong condemnation of rocket and tunnel attacks against Israel by the militant group Hamas,” while “also expressing ‘growing concern’ about the rising number of Palestinian civilian deaths in Gaza,” but without condemnation. The Senate filled that gap, voting unanimously to support Israeli actions in Gaza.

This is the norm.

[Another part of] the norm in Gaza is described in detail by the heroic Norwegian trauma surgeon Mads Gilbert, who has worked in Gaza’s main hospital, and just before this latest Israeli onslaught, submitted a report on the Gaza health sector to UNRWA, the UN Agency that tries desperately, on a shoestring, to care for refugees.

“At least 57 % of Gaza households are food insecure and about 80 % are now aid recipients,” Gilbert reports. “Food insecurity and rising poverty also mean that most residents cannot meet their daily caloric requirements, while over 90 % of the water in Gaza has been deemed unfit for human consumption,” a situation that is becoming even worse as Israel again attacks water and sewage systems, leaving over a million people with even more severe disruption of the barest necessity of life.

Gilbert reports that “Palestinian children in Gaza are suffering immensely. A large proportion are affected by the man-made malnourishment regime caused by the Israeli imposed blockage. Prevalence of anaemia in children under 2yrs of age in Gaza is at 72.8%, while prevalence of wasting, stunting, underweight have been documented at 34.3%, 31.4%, 31.45% respectively.”

Another norm for Gaza: For the past 14 years, Israel has killed more than two Palestinian children a week.

The distinguished human rights lawyer Raji Sourani, who has remained in Gaza through years of terror, reports that “The most common sentence I heard when people began to talk about ceasefire: everybody says it’s better for all of us to die and not go back to the situation we used to have before this war. We don’t want that again. We have no dignity, no pride; we are just soft targets, and we are very cheap. Either this situation really improves or it is better to just die. I am talking about intellectuals and academics ….ordinary people [are] saying that.”

Similar sentiments have been widely voiced: it is better to die with dignity than to be slowly strangled by the torturer.

Gaza death toll hits 1387 amidst ever worsening humanitarian situation

Israeli airstrikes and shelling continued overnight and into the morning, bringing the Palestinian death toll to 1,395 with 8,100 injured, according to the Ministry of Health. The Israeli military confirmed that 20 “sites” had been hit overnight.

The deaths in the besieged Gaza Strip come on the 24th day of an Israeli assault which has nearly topped the death toll from the 2008-9 Cast Lead, the bloodiest attack on the area in memory when Israel killed 1,400 in 22 days.

Meanwhile, the United States confirmed it had restocked Israel’s supplies of ammunition, hours after finally condemning an Israeli attack on a United Nations school in Gaza that killed 16 people sheltering there.  And the Israeli military has called up 16,000 more reserve soldiers to join its assault of Gaza.

The Pentagon confirmed the Israeli military had requested additional ammunition to restock its dwindling supplies on July 20, with the US Defense Department approving the sale just three days later. Two of the requested munitions came from a little-known stockpile of ammunition stored by the US military on the ground in Israel for emergency use. The War Reserve Stockpile Ammunition-Israel is estimated to be worth $1 billion.

Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel told his Israeli counterpart that the United States was concerned about the deadly consequences of the spiraling conflict, including a “worsening humanitarian situation” in Gaza, and called for a ceasefire and end to hostilities.

Relations between Israel and its staunch ally the United States have plunged in recent days after John Kerry returned from a mission to the Middle East to try to broker a ceasefire between the Israelis and Hamas militants.

Anonymous Israeli officials have hit out at Kerry’s truce proposal, calling it “a strategic terrorist attack”. Hamas has insisted that any ceasefire include an end to the eight-year Israeli blockade, which has severely crippled the tiny coastal enclave’s economy and led to recurring shortages of basic goods.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Watch a live broadcast, as Chris Gunness of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees, states, “The rights of Palestinians, even their children, are wholesale denied, and it’s appalling,” and then proceeds to break down sobbing uncontrollably, until the camera finally darts away.

Refugees starving to death in Damascus suburb

In a rare moment of cooperation between the Syrian government and rebel forces, aid agencies say hundreds of people were allowed to evacuate over the weekend from a suburb of Damascus where the nearly three-year-old civil war has yielded yet another horror: Hunger so severe that a significant number of people are said to be now starving to death.

The evacuation from Yarmouk Camp, a rebel-held suburb just south of Damascus, comes after 89 people, most of them children and elderly people, have died of malnutrition-related diseases since January 1, according to Jamal Hammad, a spokesperson for the Palestinian Red Crescent. He said his count only includes cases with confirmed death certificates.

Children under the age of one and elderly people over 65 account for 60 percent of the deaths, he said.  The United Nations estimates that some 20,000 people remain there, virtually cut off from the rest of the world.

Osama, a 26-year-old former graduate student in economics who is also a local relief worker, said that in Yarmouk, people are eating cats, grass and cactus they are so hungry. Snipers have shot people dead while they are gathering grass to eat, he said.

In recent days, a small amount of food aid has trickled in through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. Hammad’s wife Amal Ahmad, a trained x-ray technician who is also a relief worker, said this was the first actual food she and many she knows have eaten in at least four months. She said many people, especially children, had problems digesting the food since their stomachs are completely empty, and they vomited their first meals.

Osama said some people are down to consuming only water. “Sometimes we do this…drink some water with some sugar or some salt and go back to sleep. But when you go to the street you will find maybe the people next door…they’re dead,” he said.

Photographs of emaciated children have emerged across the Internet in recent days, purportedly from Yarmouk. Sources confirm that photos obtained by NBC News are of children in Yarmouk, and were taken in recent days and weeks.

Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said there are “widespread reports of malnutrition” including children with rickets and anemia. He also said, “people, including infants, are eating animal feed.”

Gunness said the aid allowed into Yarmouk so far is “shockingly inadequate to meet the dire needs of these civilians,” and called on Syrian authorities and all parties in the conflict to facilitate the rapid access of substantial quantities of food to civilians in Yarmouk.

Asked what Yarmouk needs most, Osama said, “We need to save the children inside Yarmouk. Maybe send them out of Syria…our families will be happy, believe me. Just save the children.”

Watch related video clip

[NBC]

Refugees starving to death in Syrian camp

A man lies dead; his severely emaciated body makes the rib cage protruding from his midsection look violent and sharp. A child sits in the dirt, the closed storefront behind him spray-painted with the words “I swear to God I am hungry.” The lifeless body of a baby lies discolored and wrapped in a white sheet.

These are a few of the pictures activists have posted on social media pages from the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, just 6 miles from central Damascus. The camp has been cut off from aid since November 2013 and engulfed in fighting between the government and rebel forces since December 2012.

At least 44 people have died from a lack of food and medical supplies at the camp — 28 from starvation, said the Palestine Association for Human Rights in Syria, which has gathered and posted the names of the dead.

People are now surviving on water boiled with herbs, or families sharing a cup of rice with their neighbors. “We are dying, slowly,” resident Abu Mohammed said. “Just today, three people tried to go to an empty field to eat grass from the ground, and they were shot by snipers,” he said, his voice rising in frustration. “If you can imagine — people are dying just to eat grass.”

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA, has tried to give food and other aid to camp residents “amid reports of widespread malnutrition in Yarmouk, amid reports of women dying during childbirth because of shortages of medical care, amid reports of children eating animal feed to survive,” said Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the agency.

Their attempts have been unsuccessful. On Monday, aid trucks had to retreat after the Syrian government told the convoy to enter from the camp’s southern entrance, where heavy gunfire prevented it from proceeding.

Yarmouk has seen widespread cases of “malnutrition and the absence of medical care, including for those who have severe conflict-related injuries, and including for women in childbirth, with fatal consequences for some women. Residents including infants and children are subsisting for long periods on diets of stale vegetables, herbs, powdered tomato paste, animal feed and cooking spices dissolved in water,” Gunness said.

“The scale of the crisis in Syria, with millions of civilians affected, is staggering and the humanitarian response insufficient,” Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said Monday, at the end of a three-day visit to the country.

 [Read full CNN article]