Famine imminent in north Gaza, UN report says – as 70 per cent of population face catastrophic hunger

Assessment that UN agencies rely on also says that 1.1 million people across besieged territory are facing extreme shortages of food

Bel Trew
Chief International Correspondent
Monday 18 March 2024 18:50 GMT
Many across Gaza are struggling for food
Many across Gaza are struggling for food (Getty)

Widespread famine is imminent in north Gaza, where an estimated 70 per cent of the population faces catastrophic hunger, a UN report has said – warning of a “major acceleration of death” if an immediate ceasefire is not reached alongside an increase in aid.

The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), whose assessments are relied on by UN agencies, said that nearly three-quarters of people in parts of northern Gaza were now afflicted by the most severe level of food shortage, far exceeding the 20 per cent famine threshold.

Those in the two regions of northern Gaza would face famine between now and May, the report said. It estimated residents would be dying at famine scale imminently, and children under four may already be. In all, 1.1 million Palestinians in Gaza, around half the total population, were experiencing “catastrophic” shortages of food, the worst category and nearly double the levels form the last report in December. In the worst-case scenario, the IPC said central and southern Gaza could also face the risk of famine by July.

“The actions needed to prevent famine require an immediate political decision for a ceasefire together with a significant and immediate increase in humanitarian and commercial access to the entire population of Gaza,” the IPC report said. “All efforts must be made to ensure the provision of food, water, medicines, and protection of civilians, as well as to restore and provide health, water, and sanitation services, and energy.”

Famine has only been declared just twice in the past 13 years: in parts of Somalia in 2011 and in parts of South Sudan in 2017 but never in the Middle East. The report said that the lack of access aid agencies have had to bring aid in has had a significant impact, with UN and EU officials accusing Israel of a “man-made” famine.

UN secretary general Antonio Guterres called the IPC report an “appalling indictment” of conditions on the ground.

“This is an entirely man-made disaster and the report makes clear that it can be halted,” he told reporters at the UN headquarters in New York, calling on Israel to ensure access for humanitarian goods throughout Gaza.

He joined a chorus of condemnation from international diplomats, aid organisations and rights groups who said that Israel was wielding hunger as a weapon, which is a war crime.

Palestinians gather to receive aid outside a UN warehouse in Gaza City, northern Gaza (Reuters)

“Starvation is used as a weapon of war. Israel is provoking famine,” said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell at the opening of a conference on humanitarian aid for Gaza in Brussels on Monday.

“Gaza was before the war the greatest open-air prison. Today, it is the greatest open-air graveyard,” he added.

The executive director of the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP), Cindy McCain, said: “People in Gaza are starving to death right now. The speed at which this man-made hunger and malnutrition crisis has ripped through Gaza is terrifying... There is a very small window left to prevent an outright famine and to do that we need immediate and full access to the north. If we wait until famine has been declared, it’s too late. Thousands more will be dead.”

British aid agency Oxfam said the speed by which the levels of hunger had been reached in Gaza was unprecedented. “Never before have we seen such rapid deterioration into widespread starvation," Oxfam’s interim chief executive, Aleema Shivji, said in response to the IPC report. “Israel’s deliberate manufacturing of suffering is systemic and of such scale and intensity that it creates a real risk of a genocide in Gaza.”

Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz hit out at such accusations and said specifically that Mr Borrell should “stop attacking Israel and recognise our right to self-defence against Hamas’ crimes”. Israel has allowed “extensive humanitarian aid into Gaza by land, air, and sea for anyone willing to help,” Mr Katz claimed on X/Twitter.

Israel has launched an unprecedented bombardment of Gaza and a crippling blockade in retaliation for the 7 October attacks on southern Israel where Hamas militants killed around 1,200 people and took another 250 people hostage.

Since then Israel’s offensive has killed more than 31,000 people in Gaza, according to Palestinian health officials, who told The Independent there have been at least 27 reported deaths due to starvation and dehydration, including 23 children.

Medics struggling to treat the sick, hungry and wounded in north Gaza said that the most vulnerable now were children as well as pregnant and breastfeeding women.

Humanitarian aid is airdropped to Palestinians in Gaza City, northern Gaza (AP)

“Imagine, out of 10 women giving birth, seven of them end up in our hospital’s intensive care unit mostly because of malnutrition,” Ahmed al-Kahlout, a senior nurse at Kamal Adwan Hospital said in a video message, adding that many were now miscarrying from hunger.

“Breastfeeding mothers cannot feed their babies because they cannot find enough food to eat,” he said, describing how the medical staff themselves were forced to eat animal feed.

The IPC said that because of a lack of aid, almost all households were skipping meals every day and adults were reducing their meals so children could eat.

In northern Gaza, the IPC said in nearly two-thirds of households people were resorting to extreme coping mechanisms including adults not eating for days and nights. In southern areas, that applied to one-third of the households.

The IPC emphasised that it was “vital to note that the projected famine can be prevented or alleviated” through the immediate delivery of aid and a ceasefire.

“All evidence points towards a major acceleration of death and malnutrition. Waiting for a retrospective Famine classification before acting is indefensible,” it said.

Israel has repeatedly denied blocking supplies in Gaza. But UN agencies, human rights and aid organisations, as well private charitable initiatives have accused Israel, which controls everything that goes into and through Gaza, of strangling – and in some cases outright blocking – assistance with a “Kafka-esque system” that is having a devastating effect. Officials say only two land crossings into south Gaza are open at the moment and none in north Gaza, despite the fact there are half a dozen others which could allow life-saving aid to reach the most vulnerable.

The Independent has also been told that aid trucks often had to wait weeks to enter Gaza and that convoys – including ones run by UN aid agencies – that tried to reach the heavily destroyed north of the strip had been delayed or rejected by the Israeli military. The other barrier was what items were allowed to enter in the first place. Officials within UN agencies, Palestinian, international and Israeli charities, said Israel is “arbitrarily denying” entry of a slew of lifesaving goods, including water purification tablets and filters, because they are labelled at risk of “dual use” for war by the militants.

Israeli officials denied these accusations in statements.

Negotiations for a ceasefire in the war, now in its sixth month, were due to resume on Monday with an Israeli delegation led by the country's spy chief heading to Qatar. But an Israeli official said negotiations could probably take at least two more weeks, a clear disappointment for Washington which had sought a deal by the start of the Ramadan holy month last week.

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