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UNICEF's James Elder discusses the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and risk to children


The United Nations Children's Fund, also known as UNICEF, has an assessment of the life and death of children in Gaza. Hamas came out of Gaza on October 7, killing some children and taking others hostage. Now Israel's military response has destroyed much of Gaza, and the people killed include more than 5,000 children, according to Palestinian health authorities, which is why UNICEF now describes the Gaza Strip as the most dangerous place in the world for children. James Elder is a UNICEF spokesperson who has visited Gaza and is now in London. Welcome to the program, sir.

JAMES ELDER: Thanks so much, Steve.

INSKEEP: Let me just invite you to prove that case. More dangerous than Ukraine for children, more dangerous than Syria for children - is that right?

ELDER: Yeah, unfortunately it is if we look at two factors. One is just the sheer number - as you say, thousands and thousands of children killed in a very short space of time. But also what that means is the percentage of casualties, where just above 40% of all people killed or injured being children, that's twice as much as you would see even from a horror, horror, in, say, Syria. And same with Ukraine, though the numbers of children killed here are much, much more extensive than what is happening in Ukraine, not to compare crises - but when we do, 40%, we've not really seen that in modern history. And it just speaks of the density of populations. It speaks to the indiscriminate attacks. And, Steve, it speaks to the idea that there is literally nowhere safe for these families to go.

INSKEEP: I guess it also speaks to the demographics, too, right? Because it's a very young population, if a bomb is going to fall on a neighborhood, a very large number of the people underneath it will be kids.

ELDER: Well, particularly when - you know, the indiscriminate nature and also the proportionality, Steve, seems to have gone out the window. That's a very important fact, that now, versus previous conflicts, it does seem that if there is a military target in an apartment building which may be housing seven families and 65 people, then that whole building is being levelled. So it speaks to all those factors.

But, yes, half the population being children. And when I was in Gaza to meet so many of those, to see the kids who learned perfect English or electrical engineering off the internet, it's a very impressive youthful market. And it's, you know, sort of the - demographically would be the envy of aging populations if, of course, they're given the right skills, as opposed to a nation or an entire country, entire group of children, who are traumatized, all of them. Pretty much everyone, unfortunately, Steve.

INSKEEP: Now, Mr. Elder, you've twice used the word indiscriminate, indiscriminate Israeli attacks. President Biden has been very supportive of Israel, is using the same word this week to describe those attacks. Israel, of course, describes this somewhat differently. They've been very frank. They've been very frank on this program, saying that civilians are going to be killed and that that is necessary, in their view, to get at Hamas, which hides among civilians. What do you make of the Israeli defense?

ELDER: Unfortunately, just what I saw on the ground, Steve, in my 20 years with UNICEF, I've never seen the sheer number of children with wounds of war. And a wound of war is not singular, it's shrapnel, and it's often ripping through a body. Shrapnel, of course, what damage it does to the eyes. It's burns, horrendous burns, on children, Steve, and broken bones. So the sheer number of children and where they were, where they were seeking refuge, the incredible number of children I met on hospital stretchers with those kinds of injuries, who had not yet been told as well that their mother and father had been killed - they hadn't quite captured that their life was even worse than they imagined.

So I think whichever way we look at this - and one of the things UNICEF has said from day dot, Steve, is let's get these Israeli children home, these hostages who are still there, tormented, their families are tormented. There are so many atrocious acts going on. But equally, the destruction of Gaza, which is what we're seeing - two-thirds of homes damaged - and this intense killing of children is simply not going to bring peace or safety to the region. That is something that we are seeing, more polarization, more anger, more frustration. We're getting further away from a solution of peace for the children of Gaza, the West Bank, Israel, across the region.

INSKEEP: Since you mentioned the Israeli hostages, let's put another Israeli argument to you. You will hear Israelis and their supporters essentially say, when you talk too much about civilian casualties in Gaza, you're just kind of doing the work of Hamas. You're making it easier for Israel to be forced to push - to back off Hamas. How would you answer that claim?

ELDER: A child is a child. And when you see the sheer scope of children being killed, then to think that by having 5 or 6,000 children now killed is in any way going to solve this problem, to think that to entirely disregard the safety of those children will in any way get us to a place - a better place for children - remember there's two parts to this as well, and one, I think, speaks to the disregard. We talk of indiscriminate - I would go a step further and talk of disregard for children, Steve.

The safe zones that hundreds of thousands of people are being pushed to - safe, yes, means free from bombardment. Legally safe also means the responsibility on Israel to make sure there is life-saving things there, water, sanitation and food. Those things are not just lacking, they are absent. So now as the rain hit, as doctors have warned, we have now not only bombardment from the sky, but a very real threat of death on the ground through disease. If those safe zones had been made safe, then we would not talk in such candid fashion about a disregard for children.

INSKEEP: James Elder is a spokesperson for UNICEF. He joined us from London about the UNICEF assessment that Gaza is the most dangerous place in the world for children. Thank you very much, sir.

ELDER: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: For analysis and differing views on the conflict, you can visit Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.