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Half of Gaza's population is under 18. Here's what that means for the conflict

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Of the more than 2 million people living in Gaza, roughly half are under the age of 18. That's according to the United Nations. And that means many of the civilians experiencing these airstrikes now and bracing for an Israeli ground invasion are children. So how might this conflict affect a region that's so densely populated with people who are so young?

For perspective on that, we've called Maha Nassar. She's a professor in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona, and she's one of many voices we're talking to about the war between Israel and Hamas. I started by asking her to break down the demographics of Gaza.

MAHA NASSAR: So about half, as you said, is under the age of 18. And 70% of the population living in the Gaza Strip are under the age of 30. So it is an overwhelmingly young population.

CHANG: And why is the population in Gaza so young? Like, how did that come to be?

NASSAR: Well, unfortunately, so many adults have been killed in Gaza. For the last 16 years, a blockade that's been imposed on Gaza by Israel and enforced by Egypt and Israel controls everything that goes into and out of the Gaza Strip. So food, medicine, all of that is controlled by Israel. And the Gaza Strip lacks very basic health needs for the people living there. So as a result of Israel's blockade and bombings of Gaza, life expectancy for Palestinians there is a full 10 years less than it is for Israelis living just a few miles away.

CHANG: Wow. We reached a mother in the city of Rafah, which is in southern Gaza. Her name is Fidaa Al-Araj. And I want to play a piece of tape for you as she's talking about the very difficult decision she had to make to flee northern Gaza.

FIDAA AL-ARAJ: My daughter, she said to me, what are you waiting for? Yesterday we were crying for our cousins. Do you want people to cry over our dead bodies today? So I had to leave.

CHANG: That's why she left. As a historian, may I ask you, is there anything in particular that you are thinking about right now about how this horrific fighting will shape the future of the kids and teenagers who survive this?

NASSAR: I think what it's going to mean is that an already traumatized population is being subjected to even more trauma yet again. Already, we found in 2021, after the last Israeli war on Gaza, a study found that 91% of children in the Gaza Strip suffer from PTSD. I'm afraid that number is surely going to rise to 100% because of these horrific bombings that haven't spared anyone. So even those children who survive the current bombings, they will have to face the consequences of seeing neighbors, relatives, classmates killed by Israel.

And this war is traumatizing every single one of Gaza's children. It's also traumatizing the parents and all the adults in Gaza, as you heard from Fidaa, from that mother. So many parents in the Gaza Strip are desperately trying to shield their children from these horrors. And as a parent myself, my heart goes out to them.

CHANG: If I may ask you a personal question...

NASSAR: Yeah.

CHANG: ...I understand, Maha, that you still have family in Gaza.

NASSAR: I do.

CHANG: Have you been able to reach them? Are they OK?

NASSAR: So the last I heard on Monday, my family members in the Gaza Strip, some of them had had their homes blown up and had had their apartment buildings - multistory family apartment buildings - bombed through airstrikes and turned into rubble.

CHANG: I'm so sorry.

NASSAR: But as of Monday, they were all alive.

CHANG: That is Maha Nassar. She's a professor in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona. Thank you so, so much for being with us today.

NASSAR: Thank you for having me on. And thank you for covering this very important topic.

(SOUNDBITE OF DE LA SOUL'S "GREYHOUNDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Tinbete Ermyas
Ailsa Chang
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.