Charles Clayton, National Director
World Vision Jerusalem-West Bank-Gaza
January 9, 2009
Children in Gaza are so frightened of dying that many have regular nightmares, wet themselves while asleep or awake and have lost the ability to socialize. Some are so traumatized by the rocket attacks, gunfire and sonic booms from Israeli aircraft flying just 250 metres above them that they bleed from their eyes. Television shows the damage to the innocents caught in the crossfire, but few people appreciate the invisible suffering experienced by the poor and defenceless, especially the children.
Remarkably, nearly half the 1.5 million people in Gaza are under the age of 14. In contrast, only about one of six Canadians is under 14. Gaza is truly a land of children. But these are young people without hope and who have lost all sense of normalcy.
Almost all of Gaza’s children have experienced a funeral of a family member or neighbour because of the ongoing conflict. Today, they cower in fear, anticipating that the next bomb or shell is destined for them and their families. Long after the fighting has stopped, their trauma will remain.
The four-year-old son of one of our aid workers recently watched in horror near his kindergarten as a bomb victim’s leg fell out of an ambulance. How long, if ever, will it take that boy to recover from that ghastly vision?
Israeli children who live near Gaza suffer, too, from the same fears of incoming rockets. They, too, experience trauma. But there is a monumental difference. Israelis benefit from a sophisticated healthcare system, one of the best in the world. These circumstances have led to Israeli expertise in treating the psychological as well as the physical wounds caused by living in an almost constant state of war.
Gaza, in contrast, is one of the poorest regions on the planet. As a senior World Vision official, I have visited many of the nearly 100 developing nations in which we operate. None have worse conditions than Gaza.
Eighty per cent of Gaza’s children depend on food aid. More than half of them do not have access to running water. Families that do must boil it to make it drinkable. That’s almost impossible now with severe fuel shortages as a result of the fighting and an 18-month-long Israeli blockade.
World Vision typically works with the marginalized; those who need help the most, especially women and children. Our organization has worked in the occupied territory since 1975. In Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza, where we operate a development program, one-third of the families live in extreme poverty. They are unable to adequately feed, clothe or educate their children. In this community, the water quality is so poor that 95 per cent of the residents had to buy drinking water even before the latest hostilities began.
It no longer matters who started the current round of fighting, or the last round, or the round before that. Both sides are being diminished by their adherence to “tit-for-tat” violence. Clearly, the political and military strategies of these perennial combatants have failed.
Meanwhile, people are trying to maintain their dignity in terrible conditions. Children are freezing in the dark as nighttime temperatures approach zero. Families are unable to produce heat inside their homes and have no windows to keep out the cold. Their windows have been either blasted away or are kept open so that they will not be blasted away.
Canada’s contribution last week of $4 million in emergency assistance is a welcome initiative, but more is needed. Three hundred trucks carrying food, water, medicine and other essentials must cross into Gaza every day just to maintain the population in survival mode. To start building a society that is self-sufficient would require some 500 trucks a day. In December, before the latest hostilities, Israel allowed a daily average of 4.7 aid trucks to cross into Gaza, and now even less is getting through.
Canada and other nations must stand up for Gaza’s children and press for a sustainable ceasefire that allows unimpeded access for humanitarian supplies. At the same time, they should work hard for a long-term resolution to the conflict. Words will no longer suffice.
World Vision and the 75 other NGOs operating in the region do more than provide the basics of life. They also represent a vision for the future based on humanitarian values. Both fair-minded Israelis and Palestinians crave such a vision. They are desperate for hope.
Canada can offer such hope by supporting meaningful peace initiatives that will stop the killing, the hunger and the horrific trauma that has been inflicted on the region’s innocent children. People of good will, regardless of their politics or whether they are Muslim, Jew or Christian, must come together to press for a better solution than ongoing violence.
There are millions of such people. It is time they spoke up or shouted, simply, “Enough. This must stop!”
Charles Clayton is World Vision National Director for Jerusalem-West Bank-Gaza