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Humanitarian Emergencies

Catastrophic Shortage of Food in Gaza—Starvation as a Weapon of War

Displaced families in a school in Gaza. 21 December 2023 Credit: WFP/Arete/Abood al Sayd

UNITED NATIONS, Dec 22 2023 (IPS) - As the killings of civilians in Gaza rose to over 20,000, the besieged city—which has been virtually reduced to rubble by Israeli bombardments—is also being ravaged by hunger and starvation.

In new estimates released on December 21, the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), a global partnership that includes the World Health Organization (WHO), said Gaza is facing “catastrophic levels of food insecurity,” with the risk of famine “increasing each day.”

An unprecedented 93% of the population in Gaza is facing crisis levels of hunger, with insufficient food, and high levels of malnutrition.

At least 1 in 4 households are facing “catastrophic conditions”: experiencing an extreme lack of food and starvation and having resorted to selling off their possessions and other extreme measures to afford a simple meal. Starvation, destitution and death are evident.

The World Food Programme warns that these levels of acute food insecurity are unprecedented in recent history and that Gaza risks famine.

Shaza Moghraby, Spokesperson for the UN World Food Programme (WFP) said: “I have been exposed to many IPC reports on various countries throughout my time at WFP and I have never seen anything like this before. The levels of acute food insecurity are unprecedented in terms of seriousness, speed of deterioration and complexity.”

Gaza risks famine. The population falling into the “catastrophe” classification of food security in Gaza or IPC Level 5 is more than four times higher than the total number of people currently facing similar conditions worldwide (577,000 compared to 129,000 respectively).

A family cooks a meal in a temporary accommodation in the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital. Credit: WFP

“We need an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, the opening of all border crossings and the resumption of commercial cargo to provide relief, put an end to the suffering and avert the very serious threat of famine. We cannot wait for famine to be declared before we act,” she said.

On recent missions to north Gaza, WHO staff say that every single person they spoke to in Gaza is hungry. Wherever they went, including hospitals and emergency wards, people asked them for food.

“We move around Gaza delivering medical supplies and people rush to our trucks hoping it’s food,” they said, calling it “an indicator of the desperation.”

Meanwhile, in a new report released this week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused the Israeli government of using “starvation of civilians as a method of warfare in the occupied Gaza Strip, which is a war crime.”

“Israeli forces are deliberately blocking the delivery of water, food, and fuel, while willfully impeding humanitarian assistance, apparently razing agricultural areas, and depriving the civilian population of objects indispensable to their survival”.

Since Hamas-led fighters attacked Israel on October 7, 2023, high-ranking Israeli officials, including Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Energy Minister Israel Kat have made public statements expressing their aim to deprive civilians in Gaza of food, water and fuel – statements reflecting a policy being carried out by Israeli forces, HRW said.

Other Israeli officials have publicly stated that humanitarian aid to Gaza would be conditioned either on the release of hostages unlawfully held by Hamas or Hamas’ destruction.

“For over two months, Israel has been depriving Gaza’s population of food and water, a policy spurred on or endorsed by high-ranking Israeli officials and reflecting an intent to starve civilians as a method of warfare,” said Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch.

“World leaders should be speaking out against this abhorrent war crime, which has devastating effects on Gaza’s population.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 11 displaced Palestinians in Gaza between November 24 and December 4. They described their profound hardships in securing basic necessities. “We had no food, no electricity, no internet, nothing at all,” said one man who had left northern Gaza. “We don’t know how we survived.”

Abby Maxman, President and CEO of Oxfam America said the shocking figures describing the high levels of starvation in Gaza are a direct, damning, and predictable consequence of Israel’s policy choices – and President Biden’s unconditional support and diplomatic approach.

“Anyone paying attention cannot be surprised by these figures after more than two months of complete siege, denial of humanitarian aid, and destruction of residential neighborhoods, bakeries, mills, farms, and other infrastructure essential for food and water production,” she said.

“Israel has the right to defend its people from attacks, but it does not have the right to use starvation as a weapon of war to collectively punish an entire civilian population in reprisal. That is a war crime.”

“The US government has repeatedly given Israel diplomatic cover, but now must urgently change course and put politics aside to prioritize the lives of civilians”, said Maxman.

“ As humanitarians, we know no amount of aid can meaningfully address this spiraling crisis without an end to the bombing and siege, but it is unconscionable to deny it to Palestinian families who are starving”.

She argued the Biden administration must use all of its influence to achieve an immediate ceasefire to stop the bloodshed, allow for the safe return of hostages to Israel, and allow aid and commercial goods in, “so we can save lives now.”

“The US cannot continue to stand by and allow Palestinians to be starved to death.”

According to WHO, Gaza is also experiencing soaring rates of infectious diseases. Over 100, 000 cases of diarrhoea have been reported since mid-October. Half of these are among young children under the age of 5 years, case numbers that are 25 times what was reported before the conflict.

Over 150 000 cases of upper respiratory infection, and numerous cases of meningitis, skin rashes, scabies, lice and chickenpox have been reported. Hepatitis is also suspected as many people present with the tell-tale signs of jaundice.

“While a healthy body can more easily fight off these diseases, a wasted and weakened body will struggle. Hunger weakens the body’s defences and opens the door to disease,” WHO warned.

Meanwhile, HRW said international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, prohibits the starvation of civilians as a method of warfare. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) provides that intentionally starving civilians by “depriving them of objects indispensable to their survival, including willfully impeding relief supplies” is a war crime.

Criminal intent does not require the attacker’s admission but can also be inferred from the totality of the circumstances of the military campaign.

In addition, Israel’s continuing blockade of Gaza, as well as its more than 16-year closure, amounts to collective punishment of the civilian population, a war crime. As the occupying power in Gaza under the Fourth Geneva Convention, Israel has the duty to ensure that the civilian population gets food and medical supplies.

IPS UN Bureau Report


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