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Kevin ClarkeMarch 28, 2024
A child wounded in an I.D.F. bombardment is brought to Al Aqsa hospital in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip, on March 25. (AP Photo/Ismael abu dayyah)A child wounded in an I.D.F. bombardment is brought to Al Aqsa hospital in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip, on March 25. (AP Photo/Ismael abu dayyah)

The Weekly Dispatch takes a deep dive into breaking events and issues of significance around our world and our nation today, providing the background readers need to make better sense of the headlines speeding past us each week. For more news and analysis from around the world, visit Dispatches.

On March 11, 68 Palestinian orphans were escorted out of Gaza and taken to the West Bank in one of the largest civilian evacuations since the war with Hamas began in October. The operation was run more or less like a spy extraction by SOS Children’s Village, an Austrian-based nongovernmental organization, which removed the children and 11 staff members and their families from an orphanage it sponsored in Rafah, delivering them to the West Bank city of Bethlehem.

The children, aged between 2 and 14, were in the care of SOS Children’s Villages because “they had already lost parental care before the war.” According to the children’s charity, the evacuated children are doing well “under the circumstances” and continue to receive care and psychological support from the team that escaped with them.

“The successful evacuation gives a glimmer of hope,” a spokesperson said in a press release. “At the same time, our concern remains with all the children who are still in danger in Gaza.” Other seriously injured children and premature infants have been similarly evacuated to Egypt, Jordan, Italy and other countries as the fighting continues.

In another hotspot on the other side of the world, 59 children with disabilities were delivered from the violence of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on March 21 and brought by boat to Jamaica. The children, who were being cared for by HaitiChildren, were turned over to Mustard Seed Communities and taken to its Jacob’s Ladder home in Moneague.

A Jamaican newspaper, The Gleaner, reports that because of the collapsing social order in Haiti, Susie Krabecher, chief executive of HaitiChildren, had approached Mustard Seed, a child service charity also caring for disabled children, to see if it could accept these Haitian children, who now may remain in Jamaica for years. Ms. Krabecher explained that not only had conditions become too dangerous in Haiti because of widespread gang violence, but the children were “being left without access to vital supplies and urgent medical attention.”

These two small groups of children were rescued because of their specific acute need from circumstances of violence and chaos that are almost unimaginable. Unfortunately, while these children have escaped from conflict, more than 1.1 million children in Gaza and 3.7 million in Haiti have been left behind to face the rampaging adult world around them.

Following the publication of a landmark report on the impact of armed conflict on children in 1996, the United Nations first addressed the challenge of protecting children in conflict zones with the creation of the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict. The world community tasked itself then primarily with putting an end to the recruitment and deployment of child soldiers, a phenomenon that sadly remains an international blight.

Since then, the United Nations has acknowledged five other grave violations of children caught in conflict: the killing and maiming of children, rape and other forms of sexual violence against children, attacks on schools and hospitals, the abduction of children and the denial of humanitarian assistance to children. A series of Security Council resolutions, beginning with S.C. 1261, passed in 1999, was intended to empower a responsibility to protect children in conflict with the force of international law.

Among the obligations delineated in 1261 that especially pertain today was a call “upon parties to armed conflicts to undertake feasible measures…to minimize the harm suffered by children, such as ‘days of tranquility’ to allow the delivery of basic necessary services” and a demand that parties in a conflict “ensure the full, safe and unhindered access of humanitarian personnel and the delivery of humanitarian assistance to all children affected by armed conflict.”

United Nations agreements go unenforced

The United Nations has built on the obligations to children first articulated in 1996 with a progressive expansion of commitments to protect children in conflict zones. Some components of those emerging responsibilities were included in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and an optional protocol to the convention regarding the involvement of children in armed conflict. In 2021, that protocol had 172 state parties, including Israel, which had ratified it in 2005.

But a brief survey of what Pope Francis has called “a third [world] war, one fought piecemeal, with crimes, massacres, destruction” depicts a remarkable failure by the world community to live up to its self-defined obligations to children. In Ukraine, Central African Republic, Sudan, Syria, Myanmar and other sites of conflict around the world, children remain unprotected, deprived of security, education, humanitarian aid and childhoods—and too often their lives—despite the many U.N. agreements that purport to protect them.

The acute imperilment of children in Gaza and Haiti are only the most recent examples of that failure to protect.

Even before the latest mayhem produced by gangs, UNICEF reported that 3 million children in Haiti were at serious risk. Now, according to an analysis of data from the Integrated Food Security Classification, or IPC scale, a monitoring system for assessing hunger emergencies, more than 1.6 million people in Haiti are on the verge of famine; more than 600,000 of them are children. Famine is also stalking Gaza, where children represent about 40 percent of the 32,000 fatalities counted so far. Many hundreds or thousands more lie buried under Gaza’s rubble.

UNICEF estimated in February that 17,000 children in Gaza were parentless or separated from family caregivers because of the conflict. Some unaccompanied children were the only survivors of extended families that perished together when houses or apartments crammed with relatives were hit by Israel Defense Forces’ air strikes.

“Before this war, UNICEF was considering that more than 500,000 children were already in need of mental health and psychosocial support [MHPSS] in the Gaza Strip,” the agency’s State of Palestine chief of communication, Jonathan Crickx, said during a press briefing in Geneva last month. “Today, we estimate that almost all children are in need of MHPSS, more than 1 million children.”

“The only way to have this mental health and psychosocial support delivered at scale is with a cease-fire,” he said.

“These children don’t have anything to do with this conflict,” Mr. Crickx added, “yet they are suffering like no child should ever suffer. Not a single child, whatever the religion, the nationality, the language, the race—no child should ever be exposed to the level of violence seen on the 7th of October, or to the level of violence that we have witnessed since then.”

U.N. officials are urging an immediate ceasefire and the creation of secure humanitarian corridors to address the general suffering and protect children in Gaza. Warning that children in the strip are already starving to death, the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child issued a statement asking that orders issued in January by the International Court of Justice to prevent acts of genocide and protect noncombatants be respected.

The committee noted: “Since the I.C.J. order…an average of over 108 Palestinians have been killed and another 178 injured every day in Gaza, and children are amongst them. The looming invasion of Rafah will take the fragile situation to the breaking point, putting the lives of 600,000 children at immediate risk, and will rapidly reach the tipping point of famine.”

U.S. bishops urged this week that an end to the conflict in Gaza be raised up in Lenten prayers. “As the Church enters Holy Week and Christ’s suffering on the cross and his resurrection are made present to us so vividly, we are connected to the very source of hope. It is that hope that spurs us to call on Catholics here in the United States and all those of good will to renew their prayers for an end to the raging Israel-Hamas war,” wrote Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; and Bishop A. Elias Zaidan, chair of the bishops’ International Justice and Peace Committee, in a statement released on March 23.

“Thousands of innocent people have died in this conflict, and thousands more have been displaced and face tremendous suffering,” the bishops said. “This must stop. As the Holy Father recently said, ‘One cannot move forward in war. We must make every effort to negotiate, to negotiate, to end the war.’ To move forward, a cease fire and a permanent cessation of war and violence is absolutely necessary. To move forward, those held hostage must be released and civilians must be protected. To move forward, humanitarian aid must reach those who are in such dire need.”

To move forward, the global community could also take a little more seriously the practical and moral obligations it has created to protect children, the innocent and vulnerable victims of conflicts they do not create or even understand. In a humane and rational world, the suffering of children would not be treated as collateral damage—an unfortunate byproduct of regional or geopolitical tensions—but as a crime against humanity.

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