The harrowing fates of families in the Middle East

Statement by UNICEF Executive Director, Catherine Russell, following her two-day visit to the Middle East.

Catherine Russel blickt auf Neugeborenes im Krankenhaus.
UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell visited Al Makassed Hospital's neonatal unit in East Jerusalem on April 15, 2024. Her two-day trip to Israel and Palestine aimed to strengthen public support for child protection and encourage all parties involved in the conflict to prioritize the rights and welfare of children.

“Today I completed a two-day visit to the Middle East, where escalating violence continues to take an unconscionable toll on the lives of children.

“On the first day in Israel, I met with some of the many Israeli families who experienced unspeakable violence on 7 October, including children taken hostage, the killing of loved ones, and the loss of homes and communities.

“A relative of the two remaining Israeli children held hostage in Gaza, 4-year-old Ariel and his one-year-old brother, Kfir, told me that he just wants them back, along with their mother and father. ‘We love them so much.’

“Family members of released child hostages told me of the horror of being held captive, not knowing what tomorrow would bring. Six months later, families of Israeli hostages do not know the fate of their loved ones still in Gaza – making healing or recovery impossible.

“The staff at the Schneider Children’s Medical Center in Petach-Tikvah, where some of the Israeli child hostages were cared for after their release in November, told me that it would be a long road to recovery for the children to feel safe again.

“I also had constructive meetings with Israeli officials, including on the horrific humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the urgent need to ensure better access. I welcomed their assurance that humanitarian workers will have better access to the children who are in desperate need. We look forward to the critical implementation of this assurance, along with security for aid workers and the children they serve.

“On my second day, I visited the State of Palestine, where I met with families and officials in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. I heard distressing accounts from families and children about fear and violence that has long permeated their lives and has significantly escalated in the past six months. This year alone, 37 Palestinian children and two Israeli children have been killed in the violence.

“I met children who are challenged by barriers and checkpoints every day when they go to school. I also spoke with a young boy who was first detained by authorities when he was 11. His brother is now being detained and the family does not know his location.

“I visited Al Makassed hospital in East Jerusalem, where I met baby triplets Noor, Najwa and Nejma. Doctors told me that their mother came to the hospital from Gaza eight months ago to give birth, and the babies were so small they needed an incubator and special medical care to survive. Their mother had to go back to Gaza, but then war broke out and she has been unable to return.  She fears she could die before seeing them again. 

“At the same time, in the Gaza Strip, more than 13,800 children have reportedly been killed, while thousands have been injured and thousands more are on the brink of famine.

“Our staff at UNICEF have not been spared by the violence. Many of our colleagues have lost family, friends and homes in Gaza.  Over 200 humanitarian workers have been killed trying to save the lives of others.

“Children do not start wars, and they cannot end them, but they always pay the highest price. For the sake of every child, I urge the parties to the conflict to release all Israeli hostages, implement an immediate ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and facilitate unfettered humanitarian access, and refrain from any further violence against children.

“The last few days were a reminder that hostilities can quickly spread through the region. As always, children suffer immensely in war. Each of us has an obligation to do everything in our power to protect the lives of children.