Every day in Gaza, more than 10 children lose one or both of their legs. The healthcare system meant to care for them is lying in rubble. Most hospitals have been forced to close by fighting, bombardment or blockade. Those that are still functioning are overwhelmed, understaffed and desperately short of supplies. Amputations are taking place without anaesthetic. Basic infection control standards cannot be maintained.
Children whose lives could be saved are dying. A British doctor working to help children in the region told me about LS, a three-year-old boy who lost most of his family to the bombing. He suffered severe burns affecting his lower back, his pelvis and his legs. After significant delays, he was eventually evacuated to Egypt in order to receive treatment. Sadly, it came too late, and LS died on Christmas Day 2023.
His story made me remember another wounded child. In October 2012 I was working as an adviser to the then foreign secretary, William Hague. I was on the train back to London from the Conservative party conference in Birmingham when I began to see reports that a young campaigner for girls’ education in Pakistan had been shot. Malala Yousafzai, aged only 15, had been on a school bus when Taliban gunmen boarded and shot her in the head and the chest.
Malala survived the initial attack thanks to life-saving surgery by Pakistani doctors, but her situation was still critical, and she needed specialist medical care. I called the foreign secretary and he immediately agreed that if we could help, we should.
The next call was to Ed Llewellyn, David Cameron’s chief of staff. With the prime minister’s approval, the government put together a plan, working with Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates. On 1 October, Malala was flown to the UK and admitted to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham, where many injured UK servicemen and women are treated, and which excels at caring for and rehabilitating victims of gunshot wounds. Over the next weeks and months, she received the specialist care she needed – helping her to rebuild her life and to continue her education and activism.
Like Malala, many children in Gaza need specialist care that cannot be provided in the region. Children are particularly vulnerable to the blast injuries and burns inflicted by explosive weapons. They suffer more serious wounds, across more of their bodies. Even those who survive are likely to face serious disabilities. Prosthetics need to be regularly replaced – sometimes with surgery each time – as children grow. And for many children in Gaza, any hope of support has been destroyed. The acronym WCNSF – standing for “wounded child no surviving family” – has entered the lexicon as a result of the sheer number of children left to bear horrific injuries without a single relative still alive to care for them.
We can and should help. As we did for Malala – and again in 2022, when, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Britain welcomed 21 Ukrainian children with cancer to continue their treatment – we should set up a pathway for children affected by the Middle East conflict to receive life-saving medical care in the UK.
A clear model exists to bring a limited number of children facing urgent medical needs, whether direct casualties of the conflict or suffering from other serious conditions such as cancer, to the UK on a temporary basis for short-term treatment. Once they are stabilised and on the path to recovery they will return to continue their rehabilitation in the region, but the intervention and high-quality treatment in the UK will have turned the course of their lives around.
Some of the best doctors and hospitals in the country are ready and willing to offer their world-leading and life-saving specialist care to children from Gaza. A group called Project Pure Hope, made up of senior doctors and healthcare leaders from across the UK, have secured the support of top hospitals and are raising money to help cover the costs. They are working with doctors on the ground to identify those children most in need of care.
Other countries, including France and Italy, have already committed to offering similar help. But the sheer number of children injured is such that an international effort is required. All that is missing is political leadership to clear the path to the UK by providing visas, logistical support and funding. Speed is of the essence: as the tragic case of LS shows, the children identified for treatment won’t survive a wait.
The future of Palestine rests on today’s children. They should not be left to bear their trauma alone. War and the wounds – physical and psychological – that are its legacy must not be allowed to become the defining experience of childhood and life in Israel and Palestine. Providing medical support would not just be an act of mercy for the individual children concerned, but also symbolic of our commitment to peace and a two-state solution.
In 2012, Cameron acted to help Malala survive and continue her advocacy. Today, he and Rishi Sunak have a chance to show similar leadership and compassion for the children of Gaza. The UK has the medical expertise and the capacity to help. There is a clear precedent to act. Offering treatment to children will not end the war. But it is a step that we could take, immediately – and for the children who received care, it would be transformational.