Middle East

They used to swim and play on the beach in northern Gaza. Now these children are wondering if they’ll ever return home

By Sana Noor Haq, Rachel Wilson, Rosa Rahimi and Ibrahim Dahman, CNN

Before the war, Mohammed Hamouda and his wife, Dina, would stroll along beaches in northern Gaza, where their three young children loved to swim, eat ice cream, and ride camels on the shoreline.

On other days, the family of five sat with relatives on the balcony overlooking a green garden at their home in Beit Lahia. “My children used to live a simple life. We used to go out on the weekends,” the displaced health worker told CNN. “They used to enjoy themselves a lot.”

Now, the sound of laughter has been replaced by that of Israeli strikes raining down on the enclave.

“They are very fearful. All day, we have to be by their side,” Hamouda reflected from Rafah, in southern Gaza, where they have fled. “They keep asking me about when we will go back home.”

But the family has no home to go back to. They recently learned that their house in Beit Lahia was destroyed. Hamouda’s youngest child, Kareem, 2, is too young to understand, but his eldest children, Ella, 6, and Sila, 4, were devastated by the loss and would not stop crying. “I couldn’t find any words to console her (Ella),” he said.

Palestinian siblings Ella Mohammed Hamouda (left) and Sila Mohammed Hamouda (right) ride a camel on a beach in northern Gaza, on October 6, 2023.

Of the 2.2 million people living in Gaza, about half are under the age of 18. As a result of Israel’s partial blockade, the life expectancy for Palestinians in Gaza was already a decade shorter than in Israel, with rates of neonatal, infant and maternal mortality more than three times higher, according to the World Bank. Since the war began, life for young people in the strip has become even more fragile.

Nearly five months into Israel’s offensive, Palestinian children in Gaza are living with violence, homelessness, starvation, and disruption to education. Some have been orphaned, while others endure the fear of their parents being killed by Israeli strikes. Days spent playing with friends or going to school have been replaced by forced displacement from one shelter to another – with no promise of safety. Several parents and carers told CNN they struggle to explain the war to children, who they say are psychologically terrorized by relentless bombardment.

Israel launched its military offensive in Gaza after the militant group Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, killing at least 1,200 people, including 36 children, and kidnapping more than 250 others.

CNN is relying on figures released by the Ministry of Health in Gaza and UN agencies for data on deaths and injuries. CNN cannot independently confirm the numbers due to the lack of international media access to Gaza.

Israeli attacks in Gaza have now reached a grim new milestone: more than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to the Ministry of Health. At least 8,000 of those are women and about 12,550 are children, the ministry added. On average, Israeli strikes in Gaza have killed almost 90 children per day since the war started, according to CNN calculations based on figures from the Ministry of Health.

“I miss my room and my toys,” Ella told CNN in a voice message. “I wish I could see the school, see my friends and my teachers.

No relief for injured children

Israel’s military campaign in Gaza has demolished family homes, razed entire neighborhoods, and turned swathes of the territory into rubble-filled wasteland. In recent weeks, the Israeli military intensified airstrikes in central and northern Gaza, ahead of an anticipated ground offensive in Rafah. Families like the Hamoudas fear they will have nowhere left to flee.

Nearly 30% of Gazans are estimated to have no home to return to, with more than 60% of housing units across the strip either totally destroyed or partially damaged, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported in February.

Ella dreams of the day she can return to the beach with her friends, siblings Amira, 8, Yehia, 10, and Mohamed, 6, Hamouda said.

He hasn’t had the heart to tell her that Amira was killed, along with her father, Waseem El Ostaz, and his wife, Helal, in a strike on their home in Beit Lahia, in November. Hamouda felt able to tell his daughter only of the death of Amira’s parents, who were close friends of the family.

“She cried a lot, and she was very sad… She stopped eating,” said Hamouda of Ella. “She asked me to bring over those kids after the war is over and take them to the beach … to make it up to them because they lost their parents, so that she can have a role in helping them and comforting them.”

Ella Mohammed Hamouda (left) and her father, Mohammed Hamouda (right) sit at a beachside restaurant in Beit Lahia, in northern Gaza, on June 26, 2023.

Both Yehia and Mohamed were burned in the strike, according to Hamouda. Yehia also sustained a fractured lower limb. The two siblings were displaced to a relative’s house in Deir al-Balah, in central Gaza. 

Many children have sustained life-altering injuries from Israeli strikes, according to the UN’s children’s agency (UNICEF). Around 1,000 children lost one or both legs from the beginning of the war until the end of November, UNICEF reported.

Palestinian children run as they flee from Israeli bombardment in Rafah, in southern Gaza, on November 6, 2023.

Health workers have previously told CNN they cannot offer life-saving treatment to Palestinians wounded in the war – including children and infants – because Israel’s bombardment and besiegement of Gazan hospitals has crushed the medical system. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) claims Hamas uses hospitals for its military operations. Hamas denies using hospitals as cover. CNN cannot independently verify either claim.

Forced displacement leads to insecurity, hunger

Ayas, 8, who was disabled, and lived in an orphanage in Gaza City, was en route to a hospital in Rafah when he died, Hazem Saeed Al-Naizi, the orphanage director, said.

His condition had worsened after the orphanage was forced to flee with all 40 young people in its care – most of them children and infants living with disabilities – and bring them south. Due to shortages, Ayas couldn’t get the medicine he needed. Without it, his muscles stiffened, his convulsions and inflammation increased, making it difficult for him to eat or sleep, Al-Naizi said.

UNICEF warned in January of a triple threat to children in Gaza – not just the danger of raging war, but also of malnutrition and disease. Israel’s bombardment and restrictions on aid entering the strip have severely diminished food and water supplies, exposing the entire population to the risk of famine.

In February, UNRWA, the main UN relief agency in Gaza suspended deliveries to northern Gaza after an Israeli attack on one of their convoys, further limiting aid. Soon after, the UN World Food Programme also stopped deliveries, citing attacks.

One in six children under the age of two in northern Gaza are estimated to be acutely malnourished, according to an assessment by the Global Nutrition Cluster, which is co-chaired by WFP and UNICEF.

Ayas was displaced at least six times before his death, said Al-Naizi. At least 1.7 million Gazans have been forcibly displaced, according to the UN. Many of those – including about 610,000 children – have sought refuge in cramped shelters in Rafah, according to Save the Children.

Hazem Saeed Al-Naizi (right) and Ayas (left) celebrate Eid at the orphanage in Gaza City, on May 12, 2022.

Hamouda, the health worker, told CNN his family had been displaced three times since October 7. While staying at a shelter in Rafah, his children fell ill from exposure to cold winter weather and unsanitary conditions, he said.

Forced displacement, even to the homes of relatives or acquaintances, exposes children to the indignities of cramped living conditions with little privacy, according to Saeed Muhammad Al-Kahlot, a mental health specialist displaced in Rafah with his three children – Siwar, 15, Muhammad, 9, and Saba, 7.

“Children do not sleep in their own beds, and since the house is not their home, they are even deprived of playing and eating, so as not to disturb the host of the house,” he told CNN. “These symptoms appear in the child’s questions: ‘Are we going to stay here for a long time? Is this a place where we can play? How do I relieve myself when the bathroom is always busy?’”

As many as 17,000 children in Gaza are unaccompanied by or separated from their parents, UNICEF said in February — about 1% of the total displaced population. Children whose parents have been killed by Israeli bombardment – or who have been separated from their guardians – are forced to take on the role of parenting younger siblings.

“I also saw a kid who is barely seven years old, and he was getting his baby sister’s milk ready, and he was changing her diaper because he lost his mother,” said Hamouda.

Nearly 20,000 babies were born in Gaza from October 7 to January 19, UNICEF reported, meaning many newborns are starting life amid these dire conditions.

Robbed of an education

Dressed in a blue pinstripe dress with a frilly collar, Ella used to carry her pink and purple rucksack to pre-school – where she would play with her friend, Aya.

“I want to be a pilot,” Ella said in a voice message to CNN. “When I was coming home (from pre-school) my mother used to wait for me by the window and she used to smile.”

But the war has disrupted her first year of school – the building was struck by bombardment in November, Hamouda told CNN. “She (Ella) wonders if her friend Aya is still alive or not. She wonders what happened to her school,” he said.

“She is very upset because she doesn’t know how to read or write.”

Children in Gaza are expected to lose at least a year of education because of the war, according to the UN. A recent damage assessment by UNICEF identified over 160 school buildings that were directly hit. Field reports from the agency also found that nearly four-fifths of school buildings across the strip have been damaged and at least 26 destroyed.

There is no safe place for more than 625,000 students who need schooling, UNICEF added. One in 100 teachers and one in 130 students have been killed by Israeli strikes, as of January 30. 

Psychological trauma, changes in behavior

The number of children in need of mental health support has doubled to more than 1 million since the start of the war – nearly all children in the strip, UNICEF estimated. 

Saba, Al-Kahlot’s daughter, on the ruins of their house in Beit Lahia, in northern Gaza, on October 10, 2023.

Al-Kahlot, the mental health specialist displaced in Rafah, treats patients at a clinic affiliated with the Ministry of Health. He told CNN that children in Gaza display symptoms including “bedwetting and nightmares, separation anxiety, death anxiety, avoidance of social situations” and “fear of leaving the house.”

“This situation we are going through has never been seen before in the previous wars,” he added.

Palestinians have told CNN they feel helpless because they cannot protect their children from the reality of war. “As a father, I am unable to provide help for my children, I know what they need but the resources are very limited,” Hamouda said, adding that he is desperately hoping to evacuate Gaza with his family.

“There is no safe place for us to take them to play,” he reflected. “I fear losing their souls and I fear that they might get injured or that they might suffer from a disability for life.

“I want my children to live like the rest of the world’s children.”

CNN’s Nourhan Mohammed and Eyad Kourdi contributed reporting.

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