Children are dying of starvation in their parents’ arms as famine spreads through Gaza

Damond Isiaka
13 Min Read


CNN
 — 

Younis lays disorientated on a green mattress in Nasser Hospital, in southern Gaza. His long brown eyelashes rest delicately on his pale sunken face, as he drifts in and out of sleep.

The 9-year-old Palestinian boy lies in his mother’s arms, clearly wasted from severe malnutrition and suffering from dehydration. His blue jogging bottoms hang off his emaciated legs, as his tiny ribcage protrudes from his billowy orange T-shirt.

“I call on people with conscience to help me find health care for my son, so that he can go back to normal,” his mother, Ghanima Juma’a, told CNN last week at the hospital in Khan Younis. “I am losing my son in front of my eyes.”

Two months ago, the family was forced to flee the southern city of Rafah as Israel ramped up its attacks there. These days, they struggle to survive, living along the polluted coastline of Asda’a — near the Al-Mawasi tent camp — where they cannot find enough food, water, or even shade from the Gaza heat.

“We have to keep moving from one area to the other because of the war and the invasion… Life is difficult,” his mother said. “We don’t even have a tent over our heads.”

Israel’s war in Gaza has depleted the territory’s health system, leaving staff unable to treat malnourished children. Doctors told CNN they are being forced to turn away parents begging for baby milk, unable to even triage young patients with chronic illnesses compounded by severe hunger.

And as Israel continues its siege on Gaza, preventing aid groups getting enough food into the enclave, parents say they have no choice but to watch their children starve to death. More than eight months of bombardment has shredded infrastructure, wiped out communities and laid waste to entire neighborhoods. Sanitation systems — already stressed by water shortages from extreme heat — have been heavily destroyed, according to the UN, diminishing access to clean water.

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A report published Tuesday by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), which assesses global food insecurity and malnutrition, warned that almost all of Gaza will face famine within the next three months.

The UN’s food agency earlier warned that southern Gaza could soon see the same “catastrophic levels of hunger” recorded previously in the north, where Israel concentrated its military offensive in the early days of the war.

At least 34 children have already died of malnutrition in Gaza, the government media office reported on June 22. The true number could be higher, as limited access to Gaza has impeded aid agencies’ efforts to fully assess the crisis there. More than 50,000 children require treatment for acute malnutrition, the UN’s agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) said earlier this month.

Israel launched its military offensive in Gaza after the Hamas-led October 7 attacks on southern Israel, in which at least 1,200 people were killed and more than 250 others were abducted.

Israeli attacks in Gaza have since killed 37,658 Palestinians and injured another 86,237 people, according to Gaza health officials.

Severe water shortages

As Younis suffers in his mother’s arms in Gaza’s south, children in the north have been dealing with food shortages even longer. In the Jabalya refugee camp, they queue at a water truck, beads of sweat rolling down their faces, as they weave through the rubble-filled streets.

Dozens of other Gazans crowd together to access water as aid workers nearby distribute thick, steaming red soup from large saucepans.

It’s rare access to food and clean water. Those in the north told CNN they have resorted lately to drinking polluted water, which does little to help dehydration and spreads infectious diseases.

Hassan Kalash, pictured on June 12 in Jabalya refugee camp, in northern Gaza, says civilians are relying on thin water aid, as rights agencies warn of severe dehydration in the besieged territory.

Israel insists there is “no limit” on the amount of aid that can enter Gaza, but its inspection regime on trucks, restrictions on land routes and increased bombardment means relief is barely trickling in. Even when aid enters the besieged territory, the risk of hungry Palestinians scrambling over convoys hampers distribution efforts. UN Secretary General António Guterres recently warned the absence of police authorities in Gaza during the conflict had led to “total lawlessness.”

Earlier this year, the UN warned that Israel is creating an “entirely man-made disaster” in Gaza. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has  denied allegations by the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor that he has used “starvation of civilians as a method of warfare.”

“The only water we have is what we get as aid. People are suffering as a result, it is indescribable,” said one civilian named Hassan Kalash. “We are ill and don’t have the strength to transport the water… The water pipe is broken. We do not have water infrastructure.”

Civilians there told CNN they have no access to running water, relying on scant aid entering the area. At least 67% of water and sanitation facilities in the Gaza Strip have been destroyed or damaged in the eight months of bombardment, UNRWA said last week. All of five wastewater treatment plants in Gaza have shut down, according to the UN Environment Programme.

Palestinian children fill containers with water in Jabalya, in northern Gaza, on June 3. The UN says at least 67% of water and sanitation facilities in the ravaged territory have been destroyed or damaged.

The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has accused Israeli authorities of obstructing humanitarian access to northern Gaza. In the first three weeks of June, 36 trucks carrying aid —  which were facilitated by Israel — were allowed to reach Gaza, while another 35 were either denied access, impeded or canceled due to logistical, operational or security reasons.

The impact on the ground is visceral. In Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in central Gaza, 5-year-old Razan wears a gold ring on her finger, which is covered in red sores. The Palestinian girl is sprawled on a trolley in the central Gaza facility, her grey eyes weary with exhaustion.

“She changed after the war. She became weak,” her aunt, Um Razan Mheitem, told CNN, adding that her niece had developed skin inflammation due to malnutrition. “We cannot find anything for her. Everything in the market is expensive, or not available.”

‘Waiting for them to die, one by one’

Newborn babies and pregnant women are among the most at risk of malnutrition and dehydration in Gaza, according to aid agencies and health workers. Undernourished mothers are more likely to give birth prematurely, with newborns dying because they weigh too little.

At the Kamal Adwan Hospital in northern Gaza, doctors were unable to keep baby Amal alive just four days after her birth.

CNN filmed the moments before her death, showing Amal drawing heavy breaths in an incubator, after her mother, Samaher, gave birth two months prematurely. Her tiny pink toes are covered in plastic tubes.

“These babies are dying. It is God’s decision, but it is caused by people,” her father, Ahmed Maqat, told CNN, after she died on Saturday. Samaher had endured months of her pregnancy without sleeping, eating or drinking, Maqat said.

“Everyone in these beds today is at risk of dying. We are waiting for them to die one by one,” he added, his voice quivering with grief. “We have no life.”

Newborn babies pictured at Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital, in Deir Al Balah, in central Gaza, on June 22. Undernourished infants and pregnant women are more likely to give birth prematurely.

Dr Ahmed Kahlot, head of the incubators department at Kamal Adwan, told CNN that Samaher’s poor health meant her daughter was just “waiting for death.”

Many of those who do survive are too dehydrated and malnourished to breastfeed their children. But health workers told CNN there are few alternatives, with shortages of lactose free or soya milk for infants.

Another Palestinian in Kamal Adwan Hospital told CNN that her son, who suffers from an inflamed esophagus, is unable to access soya milk, which he needs in his condition. “He hardly sits,” she said of her 2-year-old child. “He cannot even crawl, cannot walk.”

Around 250 patients are receiving treatment for malnutrition at the hospital, and there are only two functioning stabilization centers for severely malnourished children in Gaza, OCHA reported earlier this month, endangering almost 3,000 children, who were receiving treatment for acute malnutrition in the south prior to the military escalation in Rafah.

Doctors say they are often unable to treat babies who show symptoms of malnutrition, including breathing problems, chest infections, and severe dehydration, amid dwindling medical supplies. Malnourished patients with chronic or infectious illnesses are less likely to recover, a local pediatrician told CNN, as the spread of disease spikes in displacement shelters. Authorities in Gaza have recorded more than 1.4 million cases of infectious diseases since October 7, according to the Ministry of Health there.

Children line up for food aid in Jabalya refugee camp, the northern Gaza, on June 13. Relief agencies have accused Israeli authorities of blocking humanitarian access to the area, amid dire food shortages.

As hunger worsens and parts of the enclave hurtle towards widespread famine, aid agencies have repeatedly called for the opening of land crossings into Gaza, which they say are the most effective way of getting relief into the strip. A US-built floating pier designed to bring in aid in by sea has been beset by problems — from unfavorable sea conditions to distribution issues once the aid ins transferred on land — failing to make a meaningful difference to the crisis.

Back in Khan Younis, Ismail Madi told CNN last week how worried he was for his 4-year-old son, Ahmad, who was suffering jaundice from malnutrition.

“My son will not be able to survive this,” he said. “I call on the American president Joe Biden… to intervene,” added Madi, “to save this child who has nothing at all to do with any political conflict.”

But just days later, the boy died. With other young children to provide for, Madi’s life as a parent is full of stress.

“It’s very hard to feed a family of 10 in these difficult times.”

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