Peace Magazine: The Crime of Starvation in Gaza

Peace Magazine

The Crime of Starvation in Gaza

• published May 18, 2024 • last edit May 30, 2024

On October 7, 2023, Hamas’s attack on Israel marked a long-time conflict between Israel and Palestinians reaching the highest level of atrocities. A “complete siege” on the already besieged Gaza, which is often described as the “largest open-air prison,” squeezed 2.2 million people into a small tract of land that since 2007 had been further stressed by a crippling blockade. All life support in the Gaza Strip, such as electricity, food, fuel, clean water and medicine that was coming from outside before the war, were cut off by Israel’s government decree. The Palestinian civilian population is utterly unprotected, with no safe place to shelter, no food, no clean water, while bakeries, hospitals, United Nations (UN) Buildings and schools are being constantly bombed.

The war started four months ago and now the death toll exceeds 29,000, with more than 50 percent of the casualties women and children. It is estimated that one Palestinian child is killed every 15 minutes. Among the young children still alive, those under age two, unable to survive hunger long, are most at risk. The massive destruction of basic necessities has contributed to what has become an irreversible humanitarian catastrophe. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres calls it: “humanity’s catastrophe, not humanitarian catastrophe,” noting that the international community has failed to discharge its responsibility to do all in its power to stop the war.

Gazans are living in tents, partly destroyed school buildings, or on streets with no shelter from the cold and wet weather. Life threatening, water-borne infectious diseases are taking a toll on children and the elderly. Even before the war, access to water and food were very limited in Gaza, and more than 50 percent of Gazans were dependent on humanitarian food aid. Now food and water are severely constrained, as only one aquifer is providing potable water and people are surviving on less than 2 litres per person per day, falling short by 15 litres of the basic survival level water requirement of the World Health Organization (WHO).

One of the Gaza residents explained their condition in these words: “if we don’t die from bombing, for sure we will die from starvation or diseases.” In late November, a spokesperson for the WHO repeated the same dire prediction: “without urgent action to repair the Gaza Strip’s rapidly collapsing health system, more people would soon die from diseases than from Israel’s bombings. There are no medicines, no vaccination activities, no access to safe water and hygiene and no food.” The WHO staff reports a heart-breaking scenario where people go to hospital, not for the medicine but hoping for food. Now in February, the health system of Gaza is completely collapsed, and death from diseases and hunger have already started.

On February 2024, the entire population in the Gaza Strip (about 2.2 million people) is classified in the Integrated Food Security Face Classification (IPC) as Phase 3 or (Crisis or worse) , which is simply a livelihood crisis: insufficient food and alarming rates of malnutrition. Dire consequences are predicted for the health of the population, especially such vulnerable groups as children, pregnant and breastfeeding women, and the elderly. This is the highest share of people facing high, acute food insecurity that the IPC initiative has ever classified for any given area of country. Among these, about 50 percent of the population (1.17 million) is in Emergency (IPC Phase 4) and at least one in four households (more than half a million people) face catastrophic conditions (IPC Phase 5, famine). These are characterized by households experiencing an extreme lack of food, starvation, and exhaustion of coping capacities.

The Gaza starvation now is the worse acute food insecurity case in the world, as 80 percent of all severely food insecure people are in Gaza. The IPC’s continued warning reveals the urgent need for immediate intervention. Recently, World Food Program ceased humanitarian aid to Northern Gaza because distressed Gazans are trying to attack trucks to get food that is available for only a fraction of the population. The internet is full of desperate scenes of children trying to collect spilled flour to bring it to their mothers. Hunger is the most heinous torture, a slow, painful death.

Sadly, we watch such human tragedy real time in TV or social media daily as the horrors of war, but are disempowered to act.

In conflict zones, more civilians are killed because of hunger and diseases than by weapons in battlegrounds. In Gaza, either there is no battleground, or everywhere is a battleground. Starvation kills people slowly. Besides the immediate impact of the war on civilians’ death and injury, there is also the long-lasting impact of severe malnutrition on young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and persons who are already sick or with underlying conditions. The UN WHO shows that the impact of a short period of severe hunger (two or three weeks) on children under 2 years of age has a long-lasting effect on physical, emotional, and intellectual development. Even if the war ends today, the impact of destruction of Gaza’s food systems will have devastating impacts on generations to come.

CRIME OF STARVATION

Israel’s actions clearly and squarely constitute a “crime of starvation” by way of blocking access to food and clean water as a weapon of war, denying and blocking humanitarian aid, bombing bakeries, food distribution places, depriving the civilian population of goods indispensable to their survival, and even destroying Gaza’s agricultural land and reducing it to mere dirt, as confirmed by the Human Rights Watch satellite images. After the ground forces entered Gaza, over 22 percent of northern Gaza’s agricultural land, including orchards, greenhouses, and farmland, has been razed by Israeli forces. Israel has also destroyed approximately 70 percent of Gaza’s fishing fleet and continues to target fishers.

In January 2024, statements by the World Food Program (WFP), WHO and the UNICEF warned that not only starvation is happening, but also of the coming danger of famine, which is a crime against humanity. Although, since the beginning of the war, international law principles were mentioned by all parties, it is confusing for non-legal experts to grasp the significance of such rules and evaluate their effectiveness to restrain belligerent behaviour. There are various legal remedies to hold perpetrators accountable for their role in causing starvation as a severe violation of the right to food, and for failing to provide protection of civilians during the conflict. In an ideal world, international humanitarian law would regulate war, protect civilians and stop war crimes. International human rights law obliges states to protect people’s livelihood, including the right to food, housing, health, and education, in times of peace and war. International criminal law prosecutes and punishes perpetrators of the crime of starvation as a war crime and of other grave violations of human rights by recourse to judicial institutions. Nevertheless, we are not living in a world where all these rules are properly and indiscriminately respected, protected, implemented, and
where perpetrators punished.

FORMAL RECOGNITION OF THE CRIME OF STARVATION

Since the Gaza conflict started, the UN Security Council three times tried to adopt a ceasefire resolution. Unfortunately, the Security Council was unable to stop the humanitarian catastrophe in this asymmetrical, disproportionate war, and protect innocent civilians because of veto power of permanent members of the Security Council. Nor did the warning statements of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s eight independent experts stop human rights violations.

On 29 January 2024, the International Court of Justice, responding South African request for provisional measures on “Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in the Gaza Strip (South Africa v. Israel)” the Court cited the IPC report of 21 December 2023 as evidence of “starvation, death, destitution, and extremely critical acute malnutrition levels” and ordered to Israel “take immediate and effective measures to enable urgent humanitarian assistance and basic services.” Israel refused to comply with the ICJ’s provisional measures to stop the violence. ll these international law remedies so far remain unfulfilled, although the majority of the international community and peoples in the world side with Palestine and demand an immediate end to this war to prevent further atrocities against civilians, mostly women and children.

CONCLUSION

Starvation and famine are large-scale, severe violations of the right to food that can adversely affect entire societies while profoundly harming individuals and their families. The current condition in Gaza is heading towards famine for almost the entire population. It would have been possible to stop such a human catastrophe if there were a global, binding convention giving States and the international community clear legal mandates to prevent famine.

Formal recognition of famine as a crime will impede the tendency of governments “to hide behind the curtain of necessity of military operations, self-defence, or state sovereignty” and use hunger as a genocidal weapon.”

Published in Peace Magazine Vol.40, No.2 Apr-Jun 2024
Archival link: http://www.peacemagazine.org/archive/TheCrimeofStarvationinGaza.htm
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