Why Are So Many Children Dying in Gaza?

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Photo: Ibrahim Khader/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

The most appalling images out of Israel and Gaza over the past few weeks have been those of children: Four boys killed minutes after playing soccer on the beach, by shells that seemed to be “chasing them.” A father stuffing what remained of his young child into a plastic bag. A teenager burned by an angry mob in retribution for the deaths of his three Israeli peers.

According to most estimates, around one in five Palestinian deaths in Operation Defense Edge has been that of a child. If counting solely civilian casualties, the number is bound to be higher, but Hamas estimates do not distinguish between deaths of militants and bystanders. (Everyone, such a count implies, is fighting for the cause of liberation.) Benjamin Wallace-Wells suggested that these deaths, and the brutal beating of a Florida teen, have been main contributors to the outpouring of social media support Gaza residents have received. Defence for Children International, an international NGO, called for an immediate end to strikes on Gaza, citing the high numbers of dead children and calling the strikes a violation of international law.

Why are so many children dying in Gaza? The answer is surprisingly simple.

According to the CIA World Factbook, about half of the Strip’s population is under the age of 18. The median age in Gaza is just 18 and a few months. With the elder population amounting to an almost-negligible percentage, young children are easily the most vulnerable.

One of the most commonly cited refrains about Gaza is that it is one of the most densely populated places on Earth, a complicated claim because it varies widely across the region. Gaza City has about as many people per square mile as NYC and much fewer than Hoboken. At the Jabalia camp, however, U.N. estimates say over 100,000 refugees reside on 1.4 square kilometer of land. (That’s about half a square mile, for reference.) In either case, though, Israel isn’t exactly firing into a rural region. Even UNICEF’s count that children account for one third of civilian casualties in Gaza means that things could be going much, much worse.

Digging into age breakdowns some more doesn’t change much. UNICEF says about half the children who’ve died in Gaza during Operation Defensive Edge have been under age 12. (That’s one sixth of civilian casualties, for those keeping count.) In contrast, more than 40 percent of the population is age 14 and younger. Shoot a rocket blindly into the Strip and your chances of hitting a prepubescent child are almost 50-50.

Why is the population so disproportionately young in Gaza? For starters, it has the 35th highest birth rate in the world, behind almost exclusively African nations. In contrast, its infant mortality rate is quite low: less than that of Brazil and Vietnam, and just slightly higher than that of China. Statistics show that these numbers run up to a birth rate of just over four children per woman — doubling the population with every generation and making it ever-younger.

The result is lots of children and an ever-growing population for already-scarce resources. No emigration means everyone born into Gaza has to stay.

This also puts a strain on Gaza’s long-term memory: an ever-increasing proportion of the population has never known Israel as anything but an overwhelmingly more powerful enemy. Fully 40 percent of the population doesn’t even remember anything before Israel’s 2005 disengagement from the Strip. This is the third armed conflict in their short lives.