Palestinian children after an Israeli bombardment in Rafah Palestinian children after an Israeli bombardment in Rafah  (AFP or licensors)

Humanitarian agencies push for urgent Gaza ceasefire

A letter co-signed by a group of international peacebuilding and human rights organizations, with decades of experience in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, pressures the UK Prime Minister to demand a stop to the Israeli offensive and call for a ceasefire.

By Linda Bordoni

CAFOD - the humanitarian arm of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales - is among the 22 humanitarian agencies that have co-signed a letter addressed to British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak asking him to pressure Israel into agreeing to a ceasefire for Gaza.

It comes as the Israeli Defense Forces announced they are preparing to launch a ground operation in Rafah in the south of the Gaza Strip, an area designated as a “safe zone” where over a million people are currently trapped.

Israel has pounded the Gaza Strip since an October 7 Hamas attack in which some 1,200 people were killed and 240 were abducted. The death toll of Palestinians has reached 28,663.

Janet Symes, CAFOD’s Head of Region for Asia and the Middle East, told Vatican Radio she believes an immediate ceasefire is the only way to prevent further loss of civilian lives, secure the release of hostages, and allow the entry of life-saving humanitarian aid:

Listen to the full interview with CAFOD's Janet Symes

Symes explained CAFOD’s call to the British government – and to all governments - to take immediate action to address the escalating crisis.

"We've written to the Prime Minister because we've got to the point where we feel it's absolutely essential that the UK government and other governments across the world are doing everything they possibly can to bring about a ceasefire immediately in Gaza," she said.

The intensive bombardment campaigns and the looming threat of a ground invasion in Rafah, Symes added, are increasing the urgency to halt hostilities immediately, and create an opportunity for negotiations and the delivery of essential humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza. 

The release of hostages, she says, is also critical, but it must be achieved through a negotiated process to ensure the safety of Palestinian civilians.

“It has been proven, in the past, that the successful way to achieve the release of the hostages is through a negotiated process.”

Reflecting on the grim reality faced by Gazan residents, particularly in the healthcare sector, Symes said she is aware of “about 8000 patients that are actually waiting to be able to leave Gaza to get health care elsewhere that is just not available to them inside Gaza.”

“This sort of situation where doctors are unable, because of the conflict, to provide care is absolutely frightening for people,” she said.

Wounded Child No Surviving Family

The tragic consequences of the war and its catastrophic effects on children have led to the introduction of a chilling new acronym: "WCNSF" or "Wounded Child No Surviving Family".

Commenting on this, Symes explained that this conflict has had such a devastating impact on families in Gaza because the density of the population means that entire and extended families live together in one housing unit. “So when a building is hit in a bombardment, you are losing entire families.”

“So the number of children, as this acronym says, that have no surviving family members is frightening, really, really frightening.”

And of course, this reality is tragic in itself, but also raises serious concerns about the future of these children and the broader population.

The future of Gaza, she noted, is uncertain, not only in terms of physical rebuilding but also in the monumental task of rebuilding families and communities shattered by the conflict.

“How do communities manage when there are going to be so many children, so many people who've lost so much? It is going to be a phenomenally difficult task,” she added.

The impact on children also underscores the potential for increased division and challenges in achieving reconciliation in the aftermath of the conflict, Symes said.

Palestinian children in Rafah
Palestinian children in Rafah

War is a defeat for everyone

Symes reflected on Pope Francis’ reiterated warning that "in war, there is no winner," emphasizing the long-term consequences of the current crisis.

“I think these are real examples of what he means there, that people are losing everything,” she said, noting that “once the actual conflict itself is over, it is going to take years and years and years, and potentially lead to increased division, increased future problems.”

“Being able to rebuild, being able to create a sustainable peace is going to be phenomenally challenging in these circumstances.”

CAFOD’s work in Gaza

Despite the difficulties humanitarian actors face in entering Gaza, Symes explained the organization is providing support through established local organizations. This includes cash and vouchers for essential supplies, shelter for displaced persons, and activities for children to offer a semblance of normalcy amidst the chaos.

A CAFOD appeal asks people to show solidarity by donating money to humanitarian organizations, but Symes also called for prayers.

“I think it is incredibly important for people in Gaza and in the wider region to know that they are not forgotten and that people really are doing their utmost to resolve this situation.

"And then also, for people to pray that our international leaders will find the strength to find a solution and to find an opportunity to bring about an immediate ceasefire,” she said.

“it is incredibly important for people in Gaza and in the wider region to know that they are not forgotten.”

A Palestinian woman in Rafah
A Palestinian woman in Rafah

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16 February 2024, 16:32