The number of people at risk of starvation in the Gaza Strip in the coming weeks represents the largest share of a population at risk of famine identified since a United Nations-affiliated panel of experts established the current assessment of global food insecurity 20 years ago.
After Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel on October 7, Israel responded with air and ground attacks and the closure of the territory, thereby depriving the 2.2 million people living there of sufficient food, water and of supplies. The UN concluded that without significant intervention, Gaza could reach famine levels as early as early February.
Limited quantities of food and other aid enter Gaza from Israel and Egypt at border points subject to rigorous inspections; ongoing bombings and ground fighting make the distribution of this aid extremely difficult.
Famine experts say it has been generations since the world experienced this level of food deprivation during wartime.
“The severity, scale and speed of the destruction of structures necessary for survival and enforcement of the siege exceeds any other case of man-made famine in the last 75 years,” said Alex de Waal, expert in humanitarian crises and international law at Tufts University who wrote “Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine.”
The situation in Gaza is the latest in a series of recent crises that have reversed progress against famine. Mass deaths from famine have declined steadily since the 1980s until the 21st century. But over the past seven years, food crises associated with conflicts (such as those in Yemen, Syria and the Tigray region of Ethiopia) and those arising from environmental conditions and climate change (such as in Somalia) have led to the loss of more than a million lives.
Gaza is unique, experts say, because the people who live there are locked into the territory, with no recourse to seek food elsewhere.
Israel has vigorously denied allegations that it is responsible for the food shortage in Gaza.
“There is a sufficient amount of food in Gaza,” Col. Elad Goren, head of the Israeli agency that oversees policy for the Palestinian territories, known as COGAT, said at a recent press briefing. .
“Israel has not and will not obstruct the provision of humanitarian assistance to the population of Gaza who are not part of terrorism,” he continued. “We have not refused any shipments of food, water, medical supplies or shelter equipment. »
If the inhabitants of Gaza do not have access to food, explained Colonel Goren, it is because of the failure of humanitarian organizations.
“Organizations desperately need to increase their capacity to receive and distribute aid,” he said. “This includes better work processes, more facilities and trucks. There is also a need for additional labor. »
The World Food Program said that before the war, about 500 trucks a day transported supplies, including food, to Gaza, which has been under a partial blockade by Israel and Egypt since Hamas took over. control in 2007. Last week, the organization said that an average of 127 trucks were allowed through the main Israeli checkpoint each day. Distributing this limited aid is almost impossible due to destroyed communications, fuel shortages and ongoing Israeli bombing, the World Food Program and other agencies say.
“Our staff do not feel safe during distributions, and people do not feel safe attending distributions,” said Shaza Moghraby, a program representative. “They queue for food, praying they won’t be bombed. »
The handful of entry points operate intermittently due to bombing, Ms. Moghraby said, and the Israeli military’s inspections and bureaucratic processes mean that only a limited number of aid deliveries are allowed in each day.
“The needs are exponentially higher today because people rely solely on humanitarian aid for simple survival,” said Juliette Touma, a representative of UNRWA, the agency that supports Gaza.
The assessment of the risk of famine in Gaza was carried out by 30 experts from 19 agencies, approved by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The initiative, the Integrated food safety phase classificationsimultaneously monitors access to food in approximately 50 locations around the world.
In crisis areas, it monitors three criteria: whether 30 percent of children suffer from severe malnutrition or wasting; if the mortality rate exceeds twice the normal level; or if 20 percent of the population suffers from a “catastrophic” lack of food. If any of these thresholds are exceeded, the committee convenes what is called the Famine Review Committee to determine the likelihood of a famine.
Because “the F-word” is so controversial, said Cormac Ó Gráda, a famine historian and professor at University College Dublin, the hope is that declaring a famine will trigger meaningful intervention — and that even declaring d ‘an imminent risk of famine could propel action.
“If a famine occurs, someone is to blame – and if you can get an international body, considered scientific and objective, to admit that there is a famine, then it is very, very serious for the people who are considered victims of this famine. caused famine,” said Professor Ó Gráda. “So the Israelis certainly wouldn’t want the UN or someone like the UN to declare that there’s a famine in Gaza. »
Starvation of civilians was a military tactic during World War II, when more than three million Soviets perished during the Nazi “Hunger Plan” and when the U.S. Navy and Air Force waged a campaign officially called Operation Starvation, which blocked the delivery of food to Japan. From 1958 to 1961, at least 25 million people died from famine associated with the Great Leap Forward in China.
Famines in Nigeria during the civil war of the late 1960s; in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War in the early 1990s; in the civil war in Syria which began 13 years ago; and Ethiopia since 2020 are comparable to those in Gaza as seats of civilian populations during the conflict, Professor de Waal said.
He and other experts argued that whatever reasons were given, the underlying cause reflected deliberate choices by those in power.
“Famine is normally caused by people, by the decisions of political elites,” said Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann, an international human rights scholar and author of “State Food Crimes.”.” Reports from Gaza suggest a deliberate decision by Israel to restrict food, she said.
“It’s a political decision or a military decision,” she said, but added: ““I am willing to accept that other factors may be involved, such as Hamas corruption, Hamas embezzlement of food, etc.”
While food crises in regions like South Sudan and Tigray have played out with little media attention, the international community is paying close attention to Gaza. Statements made early in the war by members of the Israeli government about intending to deprive Gaza’s entire population of food attracted the attention of human rights prosecutors.
Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israeli Minister of National Security, said in an article on on October 17, “Until Hamas releases the hostages in its hands, the only thing that must enter Gaza are hundreds of tons of explosives from the air force, not an ounce of humanitarian aid. »
The debate over the current situation in Gaza – whether it is the result of a deliberate strategy to target civilians or whether it is an unintended and inevitable consequence of the Israeli attack on Hamas – shows why it is difficult to remedy this through international law.
The ban on starving civilians as a method of warfare entered international law in 1977, with an additional protocol to the Geneva Convention.
In 1998, the Rome Statute established the International Criminal Court and made it a war crime to use starvation of civilians as a military tactic in an international conflict. The crime is described as aiming to deprive a civilian population of food, but also of water, medicine and shelter. The United States and Israel were two of seven countries that voted against the creation of the court.
No prosecution has been brought in an international court over famine, as most man-made famines since then have occurred within national borders.
In 2018, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2417which condemned the use of starvation in conflict and said cases in which armed conflict threatened to create widespread food insecurity should be “promptly” referred to the Security Council.
However, the Security Council has not yet taken into account man-made famines: the allies of countries accused of causing them have always acted to keep the issue out of the debate. UNITED STATES repeatedly criticized the Syrian government to the Security Council for having used famine, but it was necessary a softer tone when its allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates blockaded Yemen, causing widespread famine.
Experts say it is difficult to apply international justice to famines because they are often caused by blockades in conflict, when the blocking party can claim it must prevent people’s livelihoods. reach an insurgent or terrorist group. Since September. After the December 11 attacks, the idea that the need to act against terrorists takes precedence over the protection of civilians has often dominated international relations, Professor de Waal said.
Catriona Murdoch, a legal expert on famine at the advocacy organization Global Rights Compliance, said the question of whether there is a deliberate attempt to deprive a civilian population of food and other “essentials for survival” » outlined in the UN resolution underpins the question of whether the food crisis is a potential crime against humanity. A famine does not have to occur for a crime to be actionable, she said, if intent is proven.
International justice organizations can collect evidence in Gaza now to consider in possible prosecutions later, when international institutions are more functional.
“This type of investigation takes years and years to complete,” Ms Murdoch said.
Adam Selle contributed reporting from Tel Aviv.