Famine in Gaza is inevitable without US pressure on Israel to allow aid, says former Obama aid official

Jeremy Konyndyk oversaw famine relief for three years during the Obama adminstration and is now president of Refugees International

Richard Hall
Friday 01 March 2024 16:07 GMT
Displaced Palestinian children wait to receive food at a tent camp in Rafah
Displaced Palestinian children wait to receive food at a tent camp in Rafah (Reuters)

A former Obama administration official has warned that famine in Gaza is inevitable unless president Joe Biden immediately changes course and applies pressure on Israel to open the territory to all aid deliveries.

Jeremy Konyndyk, who led USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance for three years and worked on famine prevention in Yemen and South Sudan, said the only way to avoid famine would be for Israel to allow “complete access” for aid organisations to enter Gaza, which it has been unwilling to do.

”Just based on the other circumstances where I’ve worked on famine relief operations, it’s very hard for me to see how you could avert famine now,” he told The Independent. “With the humanitarian footprint that currently exists, you would need a total change. You would need complete access through the territory. You would need a level of security that is hard to envision without a ceasefire.”

He said the US is the only country with the leverage to pressure Israel to open up the territory to aid deliveries, due to it being one of its closest allies and the recipient the billions of dollars of US military aid each year.

In an opinion piece published on Friday in Foreign Affairs, Mr Konyndyk urged Mr Biden to “act now to make famine prevention a top priority and be prepared to deploy meaningful U.S. leverage—including pausing arms sales—if the Israeli government does not comply.”

“The decision to use leverage lies with the president, and he has been very clear he will not use it,” Mr Konyndyk, who is now president of Refugees International, told The Independent.

But he added that he was unsure if even a famine in Gaza would prompt Mr Biden to use that leverage.

“I used to think there was a line, or hope there was a line, and I have a harder time discerning what that line would be at this point,” Mr Konyndyk said. “I would hope that famine would be the line, it should be.”

“What worries me is that [Israeli] prime minister Netanyahu proceeds on the assumption there are no lines. Every time the [Biden] administration has issued warnings to him, both publicly and much more forcefully in private, about things he should not do, he goes ahead and does them. And there has been no consequence and no shift in US policy as a result,” he added.

The United Nations warned this week that some 576,000 people, or one quarter of Gaza’s population, are “one step away from famine.” It has also accused Israel of “systematically” blocking aid deliveries into Gaza and of opening fire on convoys that do make it through.

Israel has repeatedly denied blocking aid deliveries and instead blamed humanitarian groups inside Gaza and chaotic scenes around aid convoys for the bottleneck.

The US has repeatedly said it has been working behind the scenes to convince Israel to allow more aid into Gaza, but the UN said that 80 per cent of aid deliveries destined for northern Gaza were blocked by the Israeli army in January. Gaza’s health ministry said on Wednesday that six children have died from dehydration and malnutrition in recent days.

The desperation situation inside Gaza was highlighted this week when 100 Palestinians were killed after Israeli forces opened fire on a crowd that was scrambling to collect aid from food trucks near Gaza City. The Israeli army said its forces had “fired at those who posed a threat” after some civilians rushed towards the trucks.

When asked his reaction to the killings, Mr Biden said on Thursday: “We’re checking that out right now. But two — there’s two competing versions of what happened. I don’t have an answer yet.”

After being unable to deliver life-saving aid on the ground, the US is now said to be considering airdropping aid into Gaza.

Mr Konyndyk described airdrops as “the most expensive and least effective way to get aid to a population. We almost never did it because it is such an in extremis tool.”

“I imagine there are some very frustrated people inside the US government right now that they’re having to even entertain doing this because it just reflects such a failure of US humanitarian diplomacy with Israel,” he said.

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