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‘Disappeared, buried, detained’: The horrors of Gaza’s missing children

In-depth: Over 20,000 children in Gaza are lost, detained, disappeared, or buried in mass graves or under rubble amid Israel’s relentless war.

report published by British aid group Save the Children last week found that up to 21,000 children are estimated to be missing in Gaza, with at least 17,000 thought to be unaccompanied or separated from their parents and some 4,000 likely trapped beneath the rubble of their homes, schools, and hospitals.

An undefined number of children’s bodies have been found in mass graves, showing signs of summary executions, torture and even being buried alive. Many have been harmed beyond recognition as a result of Israel’s use of explosive weapons.

Others have been forcibly disappeared or abducted, including an undisclosed number detained and forcibly transferred to Israel and held in secret locations amid reports of ill-treatment and torture in detention, the UK-based charity said.

The aid agency reported that the latest displacements caused by Israel’s ground operation in Rafah had separated more children from their families, increasing the strain on communities caring for them.

Save the Children’s report indicated that it is “nearly impossible” to collect and verify information under the current conditions in Gaza given the lack of access granted to aid agencies and forensic experts.

Yet, with the incessant Israeli offensive raging in Gaza, and disrupted communications making it difficult to keep track of children who have been detained or lost from their families, the number of missing is feared to be higher.

“My parents, my mum, I don’t know where they are,” said one of three little boys caught in the Israeli massacre at Nuseirat refugee camp in June, separated from their family while buying bread.

“We wake up to his voice at night now as he calls his mother, father and siblings. He always remembers his parents and family,” said Obaida, referring to his three-year-old nephew Yamen, the only survivor of an Israeli airstrike in May that killed his parents, siblings, and uncles. His uncle found him under a tree after the strike.

video circulating on social media last month showed a Palestinian child released by the Israeli army at the ‘Nitzarim’ checkpoint in central Gaza looking traumatised and nonverbal, with visible signs of torture and severe malnourishment. He did not speak, only drawing on paper soldiers carrying weapons.

Thousands of families in Gaza are experiencing “ambiguous loss” – the trauma of indefinitely waiting for news that isn’t coming while they continue to hope that their missing children will return.

“Parents are facing anguish not knowing where their children are, with no one to care for them, not being able to protect them or give them dignified burials,” Alexandra Saieh, Save the Children’s head of humanitarian policy and advocacy, told The New Arab.

She pointed out that children have been killed in the most horrific ways, including being buried under destroyed buildings with no one able to save them. “Parents are having to recover the bodies of their children with their bare hands,” Saieh added.

“Families are tortured by the uncertainty of the whereabouts of their loved ones. 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,” Save the Children’s Middle East director Jeremy Stoner said.

Gaza children GettyAn undefined number of children’s bodies have been found in mass graves, showing signs of summary executions, torture and even being buried alive. [Getty]

The regional director highlighted the urgent action needed to find and protect disappeared children who are alive and reunite them with their families.

In addition, he voiced the necessity to seek accountability for children who have been killed and those missing. “As many have pointed out, Gaza has become a graveyard for children, with thousands of others missing, their fates unknown,” Stoner said. “There must be an independent investigation and those responsible must be held accountable.”

Addressing the UN Security Council last week, UNICEF deputy executive director Ted Chaiban revealed that thousands of missing children’s bodies remain buried under the rubble in Gaza. He added that the UN could not verify thousands more reported cases of children killed or maimed due to insecurity and the inability of humanitarian personnel to access areas in Gaza.

Besides that, there is no information about child detainees from Gaza, their location or their treatment. “There are an unknown number of Palestinian children detained from Gaza, likely being tortured by Israeli forces at Israeli prisons in southern Israel,” Ayed Abu Eqtaish, accountability program director at Defense for Children International – Palestine (DCIP), said in a statement.

As of April, the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights estimated that some 1,650 Palestinians from Gaza, including children, were detained by Israeli forces under the Unlawful Combatants Law, which deprives detainees of any meaningful judicial review and due process rights.

A war on Gaza’s children

The horrifying reality of missing children adds an extra layer of suffering to an already disastrous situation.

More than 14,000 children have been killed in the Gaza Strip, out of a death toll of more than 38,000, since Israel launched its war in October last year, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health and UNICEF.

Overall, around 40% of the casualties from Israel’s brutal military campaign are children, based on estimates by health officials, with Gaza currently the most dangerous place in the world to be a child, according to rights groups.

In some instances, children’s injuries are so severe that their own families would struggle to recognise them. Moreover, with whole family lines completely wiped out and all next of kin lost, verifying the identities of the children killed has been extremely challenging.

“Children are the ones paying the heaviest price,” Kazem Abu Khalaf, UNICEF’s Communication Specialist in the State of Palestine, told TNA. “They are badly traumatised,” he emphasised, referring to deeply distressing circumstances like non-stop fighting, loss, repeated displacement, and severe shortages of basic necessities.

Abu Khalaf noted that parents in Gaza are typically bearing a “double trauma” of fleeing heavy fighting and seeking safety for their kids as well as realising they “cannot protect” their loved ones.

For months, humanitarian groups have warned that Gaza’s children are among the worst affected by Israel’s unrelenting aggression, with thousands facing acute food insecurity, disease, and long-term psychological harm.

Relief organisations face major security concerns and communication and coordination challenges in the Palestinian war-torn enclave which makes locating, staying in touch, or tracing lost children hugely difficult.

Reuniting separated kids with their relatives entails a long, complex process of identification, tracking, phone communication, and on-site coordination. One big impediment aid workers are confronted with is the constant displacement of Palestinian civilians across Gaza as a result of Israel’s persistent war.

Abu Khalaf explained that UNICEF and its partners proceed carefully in accessing and properly identifying families in Gaza, conducting family tracing and safely moving and reuniting children with their family members.

“But what is needed the most for Gazan children is a ceasefire immediately,” he said, reiterating UNICEF’s urgent call for an immediate cessation of hostilities to ensure the protection of children from further harm, and to bring to them critical care and support.

Save the Children has also been calling for a permanent ceasefire to deliver meaningful humanitarian assistance and to provide much-needed mental and psychosocial support to Gaza’s children.

Saieh, meanwhile, voiced urgency for a halt to arms exports to Israel. “We need to see a pause to the transfer of weapons that would be used in Gaza to kill or harm children.”