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Life in Gaza is dire and getting worse, say Australians on the ground

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Having travelled the length of the Gaza Strip – from Jabalia in the north to Rafah in the south – the most confronting place he has seen is Khan Yunis. Before the war, it was Gaza’s second-largest city, home to about 200,000 people and renowned for its vibrant open-air market.

“Now it is utter annihilation, just rubble everywhere you look,” says Elder.

Clinical psychologist Scarlett Wong on assignment with Medecins Sans Frontieres in the Palestinian territories.

Clinical psychologist Scarlett Wong on assignment with Medecins Sans Frontieres in the Palestinian territories.

“I’ve never seen a city as devastated as Khan Yunis in my 20 years with the United Nations.”

After six months of conflict, the toll is sobering. More than 32,000 people in Gaza have been killed, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry. The war came in response to the Hamas terrorist attacks on October 7 when 1200 people were killed by gunmen who attacked communities in southern Israel near Gaza, and a further 250 people were taken hostage. Israel says Hamas continues to hold some 100 hostages and the remains of 30 others either killed on October 7 or who died in captivity.

Yet after those six months of war between Israel and Hamas – the militant group that has ruled Gaza since 2005, and which Australia deems a terrorist organisation – Gaza’s children are malnourished and paper-thin.

“A little girl held my hand today and asked for a single tomato,” Elder says. “A mother told me her daughter has recurring dreams of eating a cucumber. That’s what children dream of here.”

He has met children whose entire families – mother, father, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins – are dead.

“Those scenarios are not even unique any more. You hear that quite frequently.”

When Gazans encounter a foreigner, they are desperate to tell their story.

“They think if the world knew what they’re enduring today, then of course the world would do something about it,” Elder says.

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Sydney psychologist Scarlett Wong has been in Gaza since mid-March on assignment with Medecins Sans Frontieres. She describes a jarring skyline: dozens of colourful homemade kites flying gleefully alongside planes dropping smoking bombs.

“There is no comparison to what I have seen,” says Wong. She previously served on assignment for MSF at a refugee camp in Uganda and in Turkey after the 2023 earthquake that killed more than 53,000 people.

“In other humanitarian contexts people can flee, and civilian life is regarded as the priority above all,” she says.

“In other crises, the suffering is not usually so intentionally man-made.

“This is the only context I’ve been where help and life-saving aid is minutes away, but denied.

“Here, entire neighbourhoods are flattened, civil infrastructure destroyed and people are dying from man-made starvation.”

The World Health Organisation warned in mid-March that famine was imminent in northern Gaza and that over a million people faced catastrophic hunger unless food supplies increased.

Colonel Moshe Tetro, head of Israel’s Co-ordination and Liaison Administration for Gaza, last week told reporters that Israel believes sufficient aid is entering Gaza every day.

“As much as we know, by our analysis, there is no starvation in Gaza,” he said.

Speaking at Gate 96, a new entry point for delivering supplies to northern Gaza, Tetro said: “We are doing everything that we can to enlarge the capacity of humanitarian aid going into Gaza.”

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Elder counters that aid organisations like UNICEF face “massive unnecessary restrictions, denials and lengthy clearance processes”.

“Between leaving our warehouse and being delivered, aid supplies have to be unloaded and reloaded onto four different trucks. We are given the most difficult route from south to north where there is imminent famine. It’s 35 kilometres from south to north, and it took 10 hours today to deliver a single truck.”

The problem, he says, could be solved instantly if Israel were to agree to international calls to reopen the Erez or Karni crossings to allow more aid to flow into northern Gaza.

“The catastrophic nutrition situation is man-made. You could fix it within a week if you opened those crossings,” Elder says.

As bad as things are for the people of Gaza, they could get worse. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is insisting that Israel must launch a military offensive in Rafah, on the border with Egypt, to accomplish its aim of defeating Hamas.

A child is pictured among the rubble of a house in Rafah, Gaza.

A child is pictured among the rubble of a house in Rafah, Gaza.Credit: Getty Images

An estimated 1.5 million people are sheltering in Rafah, around five times the city’s normal population.

Asked the thing that has most surprised her in Gaza, Wong says it is the number of orphaned and unaccompanied children she has met – in Rafah, especially.

“Rafah is crammed with people and there is no space or safe place to provide shelter for these kids,” she says.

Describing Rafah as a “city of children”, Elder says: “The depth of horror in Gaza is starting to surpass our ability to describe it. It would be an unmitigated catastrophe to have a military invasion in a city of children.

“Rafah is Gaza’s last hope. There is nowhere left for them to go.”

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