Gaza: up to 21,000 children missing in chaos of war, says Save the Children – Middle East Monitor

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Up to 21,000 children are estimated to be missing in the chaos of the Israeli war against the Palestinians in Gaza, many trapped beneath rubble, detained, buried in unmarked graves, or lost from their families, Save the Children has said. The agency’s child protection teams are reporting that the latest displacements caused by the offensive in Rafah have separated more children and further increased the strain on families and communities caring for them.

It is almost impossible to collect and verify information under the current conditions in Gaza, but at least 17,000 Palestinian children are believed to be unaccompanied and separated. With 40 per cent of the casualties said by the UN to be children, approximately 4,000 children are likely missing under the rubble. An unknown number are believed to be in mass graves. Others have been forcibly “disappeared”, including an unknown number detained by the Israeli occupation forces and transferred out of Gaza, their whereabouts unknown to their families amidst reports of ill-treatment and torture.

Meanwhile, the aid agency’s child protection teams warn of urgent action needed to protect separated and unaccompanied children, action that is severely undermined by the deteriorating security situation.

“Every day we find more unaccompanied children and every day it is harder to support them,” explained a Save the Children Child Protection Specialist. “We work through partners to identify separated and unaccompanied children and trace their families, but there are no safe facilities for them; there is no safe place in Gaza. Besides, reuniting them with family members is difficult when ongoing hostilities restrict our access to communities, and constantly force families to move.”

The specialist added that neighbours and extended family members who have taken in lone children are struggling to meet their basic needs, such as shelter, food, and water. “Many are with strangers — or completely alone — increasing the risk of violence, abuse, exploitation and neglect.”

Mass casualties were reported following the latest attacks by Israeli forces in Rafah. After one attack, UN experts said that reports emerged of “people trapped inside burning plastic tents” and “burnt alive”. The Gaza Ministry of Health reported “bodies burned beyond recognition.” Save the Children warned that confirming identification of a body by the next of kin is almost impossible when whole families have been wiped out and entry restrictions mean the equipment and experts needed cannot get into the enclave.

According to the ministry, more than 14,000 children have been killed since 7 October, roughly half of whom have not yet been fully identified, partially due to their bodies being harmed beyond recognition. The documentation process of fully identifying details of the casualties is ongoing. Children are also among those recently found in mass graves, according to UN experts, with many showing signs of torture and summary executions, as well as potential instances of people being buried alive.

At least 33 Israeli children have been killed since October, while it is unclear if any children are among those still being held hostage in Gaza. Moreover, as of 9 June, around 250 Palestinian children from the occupied West Bank are missing in the Israeli military detention system, their families unable to physically confirm their whereabouts and wellbeing due to additional restrictions on visits introduced since October.

The UN has received numerous reports of mass detentions, ill-treatment and enforced disappearance of possibly thousands of people, including children.

“Families are tortured by the uncertainty of the whereabouts of their loved ones,” said Save the Children’s Regional Director for the Middle East, Jeremy Stoner. “No parent should have to dig through rubble or mass graves to try and find their child’s body. No child should be alone, unprotected in a war zone. No child should be detained or held hostage.”

Children who are missing but living are vulnerable, face grave protection risks and must be found, added Stoner. “They must be protected and reunited with their families.”

For the children who have been killed, their deaths must be formally marked, their families informed, burial rites respected, and accountability sought, he insisted. “As many have pointed out, Gaza has become a graveyard for children, with thousands of others missing, their fates unknown. There must be an independent investigation and those responsible must be held accountable. We desperately need a ceasefire to find and support the missing children who have survived, and to prevent more families from being destroyed.”

Save the Children is calling on the UK Government to do everything in its power to protect children’s lives, and immediately halt the transfer of weapons, parts and ammunition to Israel and Palestinian armed groups. The agency has been providing essential services and support to Palestinian children since 1953. Save the Children teams in Gaza work with local partners to identify and support unaccompanied children.

READ: Israel cancels 20 arrest operations in occupied West Bank due to prison overcrowding: State media

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