Will famine in Gaza force an end to Israel's war?

7 min read
26 March, 2024

The looming famine long warned about in Gaza as a result of Israel's war increasingly appears to be materialising.

report from the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) released last week warned of imminent famine in North Gaza, with severe food crises expected to spread throughout the strip by mid-March to May.

About 210,000 people in northern Gaza face catastrophic conditions, categorised as IPC Phase 5, the most severe level.

Overall, this phase could affect up to 1.1 million people, half of Gaza's population, if the conflict continues. As a result, with 20% of the population facing extreme food shortages, two out of every 10,000 people could die daily from starvation or related causes.

"The turning point will be if Israel proceeds with its plan to invade Rafah, which will result in even greater disaster"

But Gaza has already witnessed its first victims of famine. The Gazan Health Ministry said that at least 27 children have died from malnutrition and dehydration, with the actual starvation death toll likely much higher and expected to increase.

Four out of 10,000 children per day could die due to starvation or to the interaction of malnutrition and disease.

This crisis wasn't unexpected. United Nations agencies have long warned it was coming as Gaza was already grappling with food insecurity.

Before the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October, about 500 lorries used to enter Gaza daily. Today, only about 150 are allowed into the strip, which isn’t enough to meet demand, not even with additional aid from airdrops and sea.

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The IPC's announcement has shaken part of the international community. Among the others who expressed concerns, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres defined the famine as an "entirely man-made disaster," while Europe Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell accused Israel of provoking famine in Gaza and using starvation as a weapon of war, calling on Israel to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza.

However, international criticism has left Israel unmoved. While the UN Security Council on Monday called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza for the month of Ramadan, and emphasised the need for more humanitarian aid, it remains to be seen if mass starvation will be the turning point that forces the international community to comprehensively halt Tel Aviv’s war.

Rafe Jabari, a French-Palestinian political science analyst, told The New Arab that it would be difficult for the United States, the United Kingdom, the EU, and other partners to withdraw political, diplomatic, and military support to Israel following the 7 October attack.

"I'm not very optimistic about a shift at this current moment. Some voices are rising from the international community, but they are only urging Israel to act according to international law. I think the turning point will be if Israel proceeds with its plan to invade Rafah, which will result in even greater disaster," he said.

There are warnings of an imminent famine in north Gaza. [Getty]

Yara Asi, an assistant professor of global health management and informatics at the University of Central California, told TNA that the famine in Gaza is the result of the international community's inaction in the face of documented Israeli war crimes and human rights violations over decades.

"This international community's pushback seems to be only a louder verbal condemnation. Until we see countries taking action, famine won't be a breaking point to stop Israel. I have been waiting for a breaking point my entire life," she said.

The humanitarian toll of Israel's war in Gaza is pressuring Western governments, according to Andreas Krieg, senior lecturer at the School of Security Studies at King's College London and CEO of consulting firm MENA Analytica.

He told TNA that Israel's reluctance to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza is eroding its global standing, as well as altering Western perceptions of the country. Many from the international community now view Israel's actions as contrary to democratic principles and emphasise the futility of military solutions against Hamas.

"Until we see countries taking action, famine won't be a breaking point to stop Israel"

“The resort to airdrops and the construction of an artificial pier to deliver aid into Gaza indicate that Israel is not cooperating and is deliberately weaponising humanitarian aid, which is something that nobody, even those who support Israel, can endorse because it constitutes a war crime," he said.

But something is slowly changing. Canada has become one of the first countries to take a major step to act against Israel's interests by halting the approval of new arms export permits, despite having authorised over $21 million worth of permits since 7 October.

The UK is also considering restricting some arms exports to Israel if it launches an offensive on Rafah.

Krieg suggests that the international community could halt arms sales, following Canada's steps, escalating Israel's isolation. Arab states like the UAE could influence trade routes, increasing pressure on Israel. However, as Israel perceives the conflict as existential, it might not give up.

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"These combined efforts aim not to change Israel but to create conditions for Netanyahu to be replaced by someone more moderate and responsive to external pressure," he said.

The Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is using famine as a weapon to achieve several goals, according to Jabari and Asi, who believe that it serves to exert pressure on Hamas, sway the population against Hamas, and force Palestinians to leave Gaza.

"Netanyahu's goal is not only winning the war against Hamas. He wants to eliminate the essence of the Palestine question, which is the perspective of a Palestinian state," Jabari said.

Israel's reluctance to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza reflects not only Netanyahu's government but also the sentiments of some Israeli citizens. A February survey by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 68% of Jewish-Israelis respondents opposed such aid, while 85% of Palestinian-Israelis supported it.

A February survey by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 68% of Jewish-Israeli respondents opposed humanitarian aid to Gaza. [Getty]

Asi explained that famine is only the latest stage of a restrictive food policy pursued by Israel in Gaza over the years. Prior to 7 October, Gaza faced high poverty and food insecurity due to Israel's 2007 blockade, which restricted imports, including arbitrary bans on items like strawberries and chocolate.

Reports suggested Israel limited calorie intake to prevent famine and further damaged Gaza's food sovereignty by targeting agricultural land, production facilities, and infrastructure since 2008.

The blockade - Asi continued - has led to widespread unemployment, limiting residents' purchasing power for nutritious food, and with Israel now targeting humanitarian agencies like UNRWA, the situation has worsened, reflecting an acceleration of longstanding policies under Israeli control since 2007.

"Famine is only the latest stage of a restrictive food policy pursued by Israel in Gaza over the years. Prior to 7 October, Gaza faced high poverty and food insecurity due to Israel's 2007 blockade"

This explains why, without coordination with Israel, the international community and aid agencies are limited in assisting Palestinians in Gaza.

At a political level, Jabari suggests Israel's stance also reflects disagreements between Netanyahu and the US administration in terms of humanitarian aid, and the two-state solution.

However, Netanyahu's focus on weakening the Palestinian presence through the use of famine may potentially fuel support for Hamas and resentment from the international community.

Asi argued that the international community "has many levers that it has refused to pull" against Israel to mitigate the suffering in Gaza, such as halting arms sales, compelling Israel to open borders and humanitarian corridors, and enforcing ceasefires.

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"While we keep hearing about the predicted famine, there have already been several dozen deaths from starvation. This is happening with the complicity and full knowledge of the international community. I believe this will be a stain moving forward on the so-called 'rules-based order' that we tried to build after World War II," she said.

Krieg said that the future of the relations between the EU and Israel hinges on Israel's political direction and adherence to international norms.

"Prolonged conflicts like this one will stain Israel's history and risk alienating younger generations in Europe, potentially straining future diplomatic relations. New generations are witnessing what is happening at this time, and that will leave a stain on the relations between the West and Israel. And I think this is Israel is burning its ties with the West, especially with the younger generations.”

Dario Sabaghi is a freelance journalist interested in human rights.

Follow him on Twitter: @DarioSabaghi