NEW YORK — The failure to reach a ceasefire agreement in Lebanon for nearly a month was, in itself, a severe in- dictment against Western political leaders. They were the only ones who could stop a war that has caused tremendous suffering. The most vulnerable victims are hundreds of thousands of children.
More than 900,000 people are estimated to have been displaced by Israel’s war against Hezbollah. These include almost 400,000 children who have become prey not only to violence but also to a wide variety of health problems.
According to Dan Toole, UNICEF’s director of emergency programs, at least 250 children have already been killed, and the conflict is making the delivery of humanitarian aid difficult and dangerous. In northern Lebanon, airstrikes have destroyed roads that connect the country to the outside world, severely restricting delivery of aid.
Four bridges along the route to Arida, the only remaining overland access point to Syria have been destroyed. The road had been used to bring in emergency supplies to thousands of families displaced by the conflict in Beirut and southern Lebanon.
Unrelenting airstrikes have hindered a measles immunization and vitamin A supplementation campaign in Beirut, carried out by the Lebanon Ministry of Health with the support of UNICEF, the World Health Organization and several nongovernment organizations. The campaign had targeted almost 20,000 children living in extremely poor conditions in camps located near the capital.
The lethality of measles rises amid conditions that Lebanon is now experiencing. As Roberto Laurenti, UNICEF Lebanon Representative has said, “The last thing these distressed and fearful families need is to have their children fall victim to a potentially fatal disease.”
Despite warnings to leave, tens of thousands of civilians remained in the villages south of the Litani River. Although some chose to stay, most of them, according to Human Rights Watch, were unable to flee because of destroyed roads, lack of gasoline, sick relatives or ongoing Israeli attacks.
According to B’TSELEM, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, deliberate attacks against civilian infrastructure to put pressure on the Lebanese government constitute collective punishment and a violation of international humanitarian law.
A food crisis looms in south Lebanon. Severe shortages of potable water are leading people to drink from ponds for animals, contaminated with bacteria that may cause diarrhea and fatal intestinal infections.
Both Israeli and Palestinian children have also suffered the consequences of the conflict. Dr. Ruth Pat-Horenczyk, director of Child and Adolescent Clinical Services at the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma at the Herzog Hospital in west Jerusalem, has called attention not only to the fear and emotional distress experienced by displaced Israeli children, but also to practical problems such as separation from families and loss of income and community support.
Dan Rohrmann, UNICEF representative in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, has indicated that the death toll so far suffered this year is up more than a 30 percent from the figure for 2005. He estimates that since the beginning of the last intifada, 912 children have been killed, including 119 Israeli children. “Children,” he said, “are living in a climate of extraordinary insecurity and fear.”
It is evident that increasing humanitarian assistance to war-affected children and specific programs to help them overcome the trauma of war are necessary. Also important is preventing, by all means, actions that may harm children.