UNICEF leader describes Israel-Hamas war’s brutal impact on children in Gaza

Hamas freed more Israeli hostages in exchange for Palestinians held by Israel after an 11th-hour deal extended the temporary Gaza ceasefire through Thursday night. The conflict has had the deadliest impact on children with more than 5,300 reportedly killed. Geoff Bennett discussed the brutal impact of this war on its youngest victims with UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    Hamas has released more Israeli hostages after an 11-hour deal extended the temporary Gaza cease-fire through tonight. And mediators are working now to extend it for two additional days.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Two women were the first hostages to be handed over today. They were reunited later with their families in Israel. And, this evening, six more were released into Egypt, in exchange for 30 Palestinians held by Israel.

    In the meantime, Secretary of State Antony Blinken returned to the region. He pressed Israel to protect civilians if fighting resumes.

    Antony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of State: Israel has the most sophisticated — one of the most sophisticated militaries in the world. It is capable of neutralizing the threat posed by Hamas while minimizing harm to innocent men, women, and children. And it has an obligation to do so.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Amid the efforts to prolong the calm in Gaza, there was new violence inside Israel. Two Palestinian gunmen killed at least three people at a bus station outside Jerusalem, before being killed. Hamas said it was retaliation for Israeli actions in Gaza.

    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it shows Israel is justified in trying to root out Hamas.

  • Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Prime Minister (through translator):

    We swore, and I swore, to eliminate Hamas. Nothing will stop us. We will continue this war until we achieve the three goals, to release all our abductees, to eliminate Hamas completely, and to ensure that Gaza will never again face such a threat.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The war in Gaza has had a devastating impact on children in particular. UNICEF says more than 5,300 kids in Gaza have been reportedly killed. That means more than 115 children have died every single day of the war.

    And during the October 7 Hamas attacks, 35 Israeli children were killed and more than 30 were abducted.

    To discuss the brutal toll on the war's youngest victims, we turn now to the executive director of UNICEF, Catherine Russell, who's back in New York after visiting Gaza in recent weeks.

    Catherine, I want to begin with this pause we're in right now. Fighting has been on a temporary cease-fire since last Friday. In that time, how many aid trucks, which we know are so desperately needed, how many have been able to make it into Gaza? What kind of difference can they make?

  • Catherine Russell, Executive Director, UNICEF:

    The pause has been really a Godsend for us and a — sort of a ray of hope for the people who live there, because we've been able to get — it really varies, the numbers of trucks that go in.

    But a couple of hundred trucks have gone in. You mentioned I was there. I started at the Rafah border. And the crossing there, it's an amazing thing to see with all these trucks lined up. A lot of them are Egyptian government and the Egyptian Red Crescent, U.N. trucks. Bilateral partners are sending in trucks.

    So there is a huge effort to try and get resources in there. And for a while, that was very challenging. Before this whole thing started, they would routinely get about 500 trucks a day into Gaza. And those were commercial trucks, different things, not really aid trucks in the same way.

    But it gives you an idea of the needs. And now, even though we are making some progress and getting more trucks in, we're not getting close, close to the resources that we need to get in there.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We are now nearing eight weeks of war. We mentioned officials saying over 5,300 children killed in Gaza. It's leading us to see countless videos like this one. I'm sure you have seen so many.

    This is a man named Khaled Nabhan. He's mourning the death of his grandson Tarek and his 3-year-old granddaughter Reem. He calls her in this video the soul of my soul. He says they shared the same birthday. He wears her earring as a badge now.

    UNICEF has called Gaza a graveyard for children. Can you help us understand, what's the context for this loss of life in this amount of time?

  • Catherine Russell:

    Well, let me say this first. It is always the case that war and conflict are terrible for children in every situation that I have ever seen.

    What we have seen here is, it's the scale has been enormous. And also the pace of the bombings and the attacks early on were really quite dramatic. And so it was very hard to see these numbers of children who ARE dying every day. And, of course, that comes on top of the children from Israel who were killed as well, children who were abducted, right?

    And so in every situation and in every aspect of this situation, I would say the children are the ones who are really suffering. And I think it's incumbent upon the adults in the room to try to do better to protect these children.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Do you believe that Israel is abiding by international law?

  • Catherine Russell:

    You know, it's — those are actually legal determinations that get made.

    I mean, what we would say is that all parties have these obligations to minimize the impact of these conflicts on children. I mean, ideally, there would be no conflicts in the world, but that's never been the case. That's why there are rules of law that say you have to minimize the impact on not just children, but civilians more generally.

    And I think everyone has a story. Everyone has a side to their to their argument. But at the end of the day, every one of us has an obligation to do everything we possibly can to protect the people who are most innocent here, who have nothing right now, right, no responsibility for this conflict and no ability to stop it.

    But they are the ones who are suffering. And the videos that you showed demonstrate the incredible loss that people feel. And I think, for all people, we know how — we have children in our lives we love so much, and we can hardly imagine what people are going through, either having children abducted for months or children who are killed or buried in the rubble. I mean, it's all horrendous.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Those dozens of Israeli children who were abducted, we know they have been prioritized for release as part of the exchange of people held during this pause in fighting. We all know the story of this one little girl in particular, Abigail Mor Edan.

    She marked her fourth birthday as a hostage in Gaza. She is now an orphan. Her parents were killed in that Hamas attack. What can you tell us about those children? Have you had any access to them? What have they endured?

  • Catherine Russell:

    Well, it's just god-awful for these children. It is so traumatizing.

    And I think it is one of the things that we at UNICEF are very worried about, which is, obviously, we have the immediate impact on children, but the long-term impact, the stress, the strain of living through situations like this, either children have been abducted and obviously living in situations that we don't really have full visibility into yet or children who have parents who they have lost or other people that they have lost.

    I — when I was in Gaza, one of the staff people that was there was proudly telling me about this water sanitation project that she'd worked on. And then she says, kind of as an aside: "Well, I have lost 17 members of my extended family."

    I mean, I couldn't believe it. You know, it was just the scale of the loss and the trauma and the fact that these people are still trying so hard to go on and make a life for themselves and that community was really striking to me.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is the executive director of UNICEF, Catherine Russell, joining us today.

    Catherine, thank you so much. Always good to see you.

  • Catherine Russell:

    Thanks. Great to see you too. Thanks so much.

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