World

The War Turns Gaza Into a ‘Graveyard’ for Children

Thousands of children have been killed in the enclave since the Israeli assault began, officials in Gaza say. The Israeli military says it takes “all feasible precautions” to avoid civilian deaths.

By Raja Abdulrahim

Photographs by Samar Abu Elouf and Yousef Masoud

Nov. 18, 2023


Barefoot and weeping, Khaled Joudeh, 9, hurried toward the dozens of bodies wrapped in white burial shrouds, blankets and rugs outside the overcrowded morgue.

“Where’s my mom?” he cried next to a photographer for The New York Times. “I want to see my mom.”

“Where is Khalil?” he continued, barely audible between sobs as he asked for his 12-year-old brother. A morgue worker opened a white shroud, so Khaled could kiss his brother one final time.

Then, he bid farewell to his 8-month-old sister. Another shroud was pulled back, revealing the blood-caked face of a baby, her strawberry-red hair matted down. Khaled broke into fresh sobs as he identified her to the hospital staff. Her name was Misk, Arabic for musk.

“Mama was so happy when she had you,” he whispered, gently touching her forehead, tears streaming down his face onto hers.

She was the joy of his family, relatives later said — after three boys, his parents were desperate for a girl. When she was born, they said, Khaled’s mother delighted in dressing Misk in frilly, colorful dresses, pinning her tiny curls in bright hair clips.

Misk JoudehCredit…via Joudeh family

Through his tears, Khaled bid farewell to his mother, father, older brother and sister, their bodies lined up around him. Only Khaled and his younger brother, Tamer, 7, survived what relatives and local journalists said was an airstrike on Oct. 22 that toppled two buildings sheltering their extended family.

A total of 68 members of the Joudeh family were killed that day as they slept in their beds in Deir al Balah, in central Gaza, three of Khaled’s relatives recounted in separate interviews.

Several branches and generations of the Joudehs, a Palestinian family, had been huddling together before the strike, relatives said, including some who had fled northern Gaza, as Israel had ordered residents to do. The Israeli military said it could not address questions about a strike on the family.

In the end, members of the family were buried together, side by side in a long grave, relatives said, showing footage of the burial and sharing a picture of Misk before she was killed.

Gaza, the United Nations warns, has become “a graveyard for thousands of children.”

Determining the precise number of children killed in Gaza — in the midst of a fierce bombing campaign, with hospitals collapsing, children missing, bodies buried under rubble and neighborhoods in ruins — is a Sisyphean task. Health officials in Gaza say that 5,000 Palestinian children have been killed since the Israeli assault began, and possibly hundreds more. Many international officials and experts familiar with the way death tolls are compiled in the territory say the overall numbers are generally reliable.

If the figures are even close to accurate, far more children have been killed in Gaza in the past six weeks than the 2,985 children killed in the world’s major conflict zones combined — across two dozen countries — during all of last year, even with the war in Ukraine, according to U.N. tallies of verified deaths in armed conflict.

A wounded child arriving at Al-Nasr Hospital in Khan Younis, Gaza.Credit…Yousef Masoud for The New York Times

The body of a child pulled from rubble in Khan Younis.Credit…Yousef Masoud for The New York Times
The funeral of a child in Khan Younis on Oct. 26.Credit…Yousef Masoud for The New York Times

The Israeli military says that, unlike the “murderous assault against women, children, elderly and the disabled” by Hamas on Oct. 7, Israeli forces take “all feasible precautions” to “mitigate harm” to civilians.

Hamas, the military said, deliberately caused “the maximum amount of harm and brutality possible to civilians.” During the attack on Israel, parents and their children were gunned down inside their homes, witnesses and officials say, with children taken as hostages.

In response, the Israeli military says, it is waging a war “forcefully to dismantle Hamas military and administrative capabilities.” It notes that Israeli forces have told residents to flee to southern Gaza, and says that they issue warnings before airstrikes “when possible.”

But the furious pace of the strikes — more than 15,000 to date, according to the Israeli military, including in southern Gaza as well — makes the Israeli bombing campaign on the Palestinian territory one of the most intense of the 21st century. And it is happening in a dense urban enclave under siege with high concentrations of civilians, particularly children, setting off mounting global alarm, even from some of Israel’s closest allies.

After initially questioning the death toll reported by health officials in Gaza, the Biden administration now says that “far too many” Palestinians have been killed, conceding that the true figures for civilian casualties may be “even higher than are being cited.”

So many children are brought into the morgue at Al-Aqsa Hospital in Deir al Balah that the morgue director, Yassir Abu Amar, says he has to cut his burial shrouds into child-size fragments to handle the influx of corpses.

“The children’s bodies come to us broken and in pieces,” he said. “It’s chilling.”

“We’ve never seen this number of children killed,” he added. “We cry every day. Every day, we cry while we’re working to prepare the children.”

During previous wars, parents in Gaza, a crowded strip with more than two million people, sometimes put their children to bed in different rooms of their homes. If an airstrike damaged one part of the house, the other children might live.

Given the scale of the bombardment this time — which many Gazans describe as indiscriminate and without warning — some parents have put much greater distances between their children, splitting them up and sending them to relatives in different parts of the Gaza Strip to try to increase their odds of survival. Others have taken to scrawling names directly onto their children’s skin, in case they are lost, orphaned or killed and need to be identified.

In the emergency room of Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, Dr. Ghassan Abu-Sittah said that many children had been brought in alone and in shock, with burns, shrapnel wounds or severe injuries from being crushed by rubble. In many cases, he said, no one knew who they were.

Waiting for treatment at Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City.Credit…Samar Abu Elouf for The New York Times
A wounded child was treated at Al-Aqsa Hospital in Deir al Balah.Credit…Samar Abu Elouf for The New York Times
Waiting for treatment at Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City.Credit…Samar Abu Elouf for The New York Times

“They are given a designation — ‘Unknown Trauma Child’ — until someone recognizes them,” he said. “The crippling thing is that some of them are the sole survivors of their family, so no one ever comes.”

“More and more, it seems like a war against children,” said Dr. Abu-Sittah.

Two weeks ago, the emergency room at Al-Shifa registered “Unknown Trauma Child 1,500,” Dr. Abu-Sittah said.

Then, in recent days, Israeli forces stormed the hospital, where thousands of Gazans had been sheltering, saying that the facility sat above an underground Hamas command center. United Nations officials warned that the raid put Gaza’s most vulnerable in even greater jeopardy.

International experts who have worked with health officials in Gaza during this and other wars say that hospitals and morgues in the enclave gather and report the names, ID numbers and other details of people who have been killed in the territory. While the experts urged caution around public statements about the specific number of people killed in a particular strike — especially in the immediate aftermath of a blast — they said the aggregate death tolls reported by health workers in Gaza have typically proven to be accurate.

The Israeli military says it “regrets any harm caused to civilians (especially children),” adding that it is examining “all its operations” to ensure that it follows its own rules and adheres to international law.

But a growing number of human rights groups and officials contend that Israel has already broken that law.

After condemning the “heinous, brutal and shocking” attacks by Hamas as war crimes, Volker Türk, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, said this month, “The collective punishment by Israel of Palestinian civilians amounts also to a war crime, as does the unlawful forcible evacuation of civilians.”

“The massive bombardments by Israel have killed, maimed and injured in particular women and children,” he added. “All of this has an unbearable toll.”

Some international officials warn that children are in danger no matter where they go. “There is nowhere safe for Gaza’s one million children to turn,” said Catherine Russell, the director of UNICEF.

On Oct. 15, Dr. Mohammad Abu Moussa said that he was on a 24-hour shift at Al-Nasr Hospital in Khan Younis — south of the evacuation line drawn by Israel — when he heard a loud explosion nearby. He called his wife at home, but when she answered, he said, all he heard were screams.

Soon, he said, his wife, 12-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son were brought into the emergency room, bloodied, hysterical and covered in dust from rubble. He tried to comfort them, but panicked when he noticed that his youngest son, 7-year-old Yousef, was not with them.

“Where’s Yousef?” he recalled asking.

No one would answer.

When he pressed again about his son, he said a neighbor simply responded, “May God have mercy on his soul.”

Yousef Abu MoussaCredit…via Mohammad Abu Moussa

Dr. Abu Moussa didn’t want to believe it. Video from journalists at the hospital shows him frantically searching for Yousef. Dr. Abu Moussa recounted how he had asked other departments, including the intensive care unit, whether his son had been rushed there instead.

Then, he said, a journalist showed him pictures of their demolished home. Dr. Abu Moussa said he recognized the gray clothing Yousef had been wearing when he kissed him goodbye before leaving the house.

With dread, Dr. Abu Moussa walked from the emergency room to the hospital morgue. That’s where he said he finally found Yousef, a jokester with a cheeky smile who stuck out his tongue in photographs. Now, his lifeless body was lying on a gurney.

The shock was too much to bear. Dr. Abu Moussa recalled looking away before a colleague embraced him.

Multiple relatives said that airstrikes had hit their home without warning, and that Dr. Abu Moussa’s family had been pulled from the rubble. The Israeli military said it could not address questions about a strike on the family.

“Yousef was a very loved child,” said his mother, Rawan, a fitness instructor. “He was always smiling. He loved to laugh and make people laugh.”

At home, the boy had wanted to eat every meal next to his father, or in his lap, sometimes even sharing the same spoon.

“He would emulate me in everything I did,” Dr. Abu Moussa said, adding that his son had wanted to become a doctor as well.

Yousef was not the only one killed. Dr. Abu Moussa’s brother, Jasir Abu Moussa, lost both of his sons and his wife, family members said.

Dr. Abu Moussa’s nephew Hmaid, 18, had recently graduated from high school with high marks, the family said. He got his love of cars from his father and, from his mother, a love of poetry and art. He had hopes of studying mechanical engineering in Europe, relatives said, and had begun studying German even as he was studying for his high school exams.

His younger brother, Abdulrahman, 8, was even smarter, the family said. He was killed, too.

“He was a handful,” Jasir Abu Moussa said of his younger son. “But he was also very smart, and delightful.”

Death colors the living, as well.

Many children are showing clear signs of trauma, including night terrors, said Nida Zaeem, a mental health field officer with the International Committee of the Red Cross in Gaza.

Families in Khan Younis leaving their homes to seek shelter after an explosion.Credit…Yousef Masoud for The New York Times
Wounded children in Khan Younis.Credit…Samar Abu Elouf for The New York Times
Children inspecting their family’s home after a blast in Gaza City.Credit…Samar Abu Elouf for The New York Times

“They are waking up shouting, screaming,” Ms. Zaeem said from a Red Cross shelter in Rafah, in the south, where she is staying with her family, including four children. Each night, she added, children in the shelter yell, “We’re going to die, we’re going to die.”

“They are shouting, pleading, ‘Please protect me, please, please hide me. I don’t want to die,’” she added.

In an encampment sheltering thousands of people around a United Nations center, Hammoud Qadada, 4, tried to focus on a video game inside a tent as the thundering sound of strikes were close enough to shake the ground beneath him.

When the soccer players on the screen scored, everyone in the tent — his siblings, cousins and other children from the makeshift encampment — yelled “goooaaal” so loudly that people in nearby tents thought a cease-fire had been announced.

Their parents had hooked up a television to a solar panel and, when it seemed safe enough, people played real soccer outside between the tents — trying to distract the children.

It wasn’t enough.

The next morning, Hammoud’s grandmother said he woke up and said, “I’m going to die.”

“I told him no,” said his grandmother Hanaan Jaber, 53. “God willing, you will grow up and you will get married and tell your children what happened with us here, like a story.”

Hammoud’s vocabulary has already been shaped by the war. Soon after it started, he asked his parents what “martyrdom” meant. When asked what is happening around him, he answers without hesitation: “Airstrikes. Airstrikes and war.”

Gaza, a coastal strip where cabanas and food shacks line the Mediterranean, once had a lively beach culture. Yasser Abou Ishaq, 34, recalled how he used to teach his three young daughters how to swim.

“They were always asking me to go to the beach, to the amusement park, to the parks,” he said. “I loved watching them play.”

Amal, his oldest, 7, was named after his mother. At school, she was a good student with excellent penmanship, he recalled. At home, she became the teacher who made her younger sister Israa, a 4-year-old who loved chocolate and Kinder toys, play along as the student.

From left: Habiba Abou Ishaq, 1, and her sisters, Israa, 4, and Amal, 7.Credit…via Yasser Abou Isha

When his home was destroyed by what he said was an airstrike, he lost them both, he said. His wife was killed as well, he said.

In all, 25 members of his family, 15 of them children, have been killed, he said. Local journalists reported a strike and shared footage of bodies in burial shrouds — members of the Abou Ishaq family, they said — lined up on the ground as relatives cried over them. The Israeli military said it could not address questions about a strike on the family.

Mr. Abou Ishaq said that he and his 1-year-old daughter, Habiba, had been wounded and taken to the hospital. Most of his family, including his wife and Amal, were pulled from the rubble the same day and buried by relatives, he said, while he was still being treated. He never got the chance to say goodbye, he said.

The next day, Israa’s body was pulled from the rubble, he said. He was able to see her in the hospital’s morgue and hold her one last time.

“I hugged and kissed her. I said goodbye and I cried,” he said. “God only knows how much I cried.”

Mourning relatives outside the morgue of Al-Aqsa Hospital in Deir al Balah.Credit…Samar Abu Elouf for The New York Times

Reporting was contributed by Alan Yuhas, Samar Abu Elouf, Ameera Harouda and Abu Bakr Bashir

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