Nicholas Kristof: So many child deaths in Gaza, and for what?

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Consider this: The most dangerous place to be a child in the world today is the Gaza Strip.

That’s the assessment of Catherine Russell, executive director of UNICEF, who is not a bleeding-heart radical but a former ambassador and veteran lawyer who worked for Presidents Joe Biden and Barack Obama.

Already it appears that more than twice as many children have died in Gaza just since the war started Oct. 7 than in all the conflicts worldwide in 2022, according to United Nations figures.

“Almost 1 out of every 150 Palestinian children in Gaza have been killed in just two months,” noted Dr. Zaher Sahloul, president of MedGlobal, an aid group working there. “That is the equivalent of half a million American children.”

Sahloul warned that many others may “die from infections, waterborne diseases or dehydration,” while others will suffer from lifelong physical disabilities.

We can and should despise Hamas, a repressive, misogynist and homophobic force that uses Palestinian civilians as human shields. And we can understand how Israel, traumatized by savage killings and rapes by Hamas, is determined to strike back. But just because Hamas is indifferent to the lives of Palestinian children does not mean that Israel or the United States should be reckless as well.

The Biden administration has continued to periodically defend Israel not only when it is attacked, which is right, but even when it causes enormous numbers of Palestinian civilian deaths. Contrary to Biden administration claims that Israel is getting the message to show restraint, the U.N. reports that this week “saw some of the heaviest shelling in Gaza so far” and that “if possible, an even more hellish scenario is about to unfold.”

“Nowhere is safe in Gaza,” said Martin Griffiths, the top U.N. official for humanitarian matters. “Such blatant disregard for basic humanity must stop.”

The U.N. commissioner for human rights, Volker Türk, has suggested that war crimes have been committed by both Hamas and Israel, yet too many Americans decry some deaths but not others. We tell the world that we are supporting Ukraine because of our belief in the “rules-based international order,” and then we provide weaponry that ends up killing children on a huge scale in Gaza.

Too many see events through a prism in which lives are invaluable on one side while deaths on the other are regrettable.

Gaza health authorities say that 16,248 people have been killed in the enclave so far, about 70% of them women and children. It’s impossible to verify the figures, but human rights monitors say the figures are credible and have proved reliable in the past. A senior Biden administration official told Congress that the reported figures may well be an undercount (presumably because of bodies unrecovered under the rubble).

If those figures are right, that means that a woman or child has been killed on average about every seven minutes around the clock since the war began. Some have been babies in incubators.

The savagery of the Oct. 7 attacks precipitated the bombardment, of course, and Hamas continues to hold hostages. Every bit of diplomatic pressure should be applied to Hamas to free those hostages and, in the meantime, to allow them visits by humanitarian workers. The penchant of some American progressives to tear down posters for hostages is nauseating, as is the wave of antisemitism that we’ve seen in both the United States and Europe.

There is a distinction: Hamas deliberately killed and kidnapped children Oct. 7. Israel is not deliberately killing Palestinian children; it is simply bombing entire neighborhoods with far too little attention to civilian life. There is a moral difference there, but I wouldn’t want to try to explain it to grieving parents in Gaza.

While recognizing Israel’s right to defend itself, how is it advancing its security by flattening large areas with 2,000-pound bombs? The United States has repeatedly counseled Israel to use smaller bombs and more surgical strikes, in part to avoid turning tactical victories into strategic defeat.

As best we can tell, these are the results of its operation so far:

— Israel appears to have modestly degraded Hamas’ military capacity. An Israeli military spokesperson estimated that several thousand Hamas fighters had been killed, which might amount to 10% or less of the Hamas force.

— Hamas has gained popularity and credibility in the West Bank (Hamas flags were everywhere when I visited recently).

— Israeli hostages have been placed at risk and reportedly killed.

— The initial global outpouring of support for Israel has been replaced by a flood of sympathy for Palestinians.

— Hamas has succeeded in one of its aims: putting the Palestinian cause back on the global agenda.

— Revulsion at the Palestinian loss of life has jeopardized the stability of neighbors like Jordan and put off any hope for now of an accord between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

— The risks of an uprising in the West Bank have increased, along with those of a wider war with Lebanon.

So has this made Israel safer? Enough to justify killing a woman or child every seven minutes around the clock?

I’ve covered lots of conflicts, and one of the striking things about the bombardment of Gaza is how intense it has been. About half of buildings in northern Gaza show structural damage, according to analyses of satellite images.

The pace of killing of civilians has been much greater than in most other recent conflicts; the only one that I know of that compares is perhaps the Rwanda genocide in 1994. Far more women and children appear to have been killed in Gaza than in the entire first year of the Iraq War, for example.

“It has condensed the suffering usually acquired over several years into six weeks,” said Dr. Annie Sparrow, a pediatrician with long experience practicing in war zones and an associate professor at the Icahn School of Medicine. “For the babies born into this war … it is as if they inherit a congenital affliction — a destiny to suffer, to live a constrained life, due to events that they have no ability to affect.”

By pulverizing entire neighborhoods and killing huge numbers of civilians instead of using smaller bombs and taking a much more surgical approach, as American officials have urged, Israel has provoked growing demands for an extended cease-fire that would arguably amount to a Hamas victory. In short, I fear that inflicting mass casualties is a strategic error as well as a moral one; while parts of Gaza were flattened with the goal of destroying Hamas, that might be what rescues Hamas.

We should be particularly pained that children are dying from American bombs and missiles. I’m glad that Biden administration officials are finding their voice and speaking up to try to slow the killing, but I wish it hadn’t taken so long.

If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is wading into a quagmire, Biden is doing Israel no favors by biting his tongue in public. He should speak up more forcefully on behalf of the children in whose deaths I fear we are complicit.

Look, it’s hard to have a conversation about the Middle East, because people quickly divide into sides. But the side we should be on is that of children dying pointlessly in Israel and Gaza alike without advancing anyone’s security. The lives of Israeli, American and Palestinian children all have equal value, and we should act like it.

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Nicholas Kristof writes a column for the New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018. He’s at and

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