From Gaza to Yemen, starvation cannot be a weapon of war

From Gaza to Yemen, starvation cannot be a weapon of war
The WFP's decision to cut aid in Yemen pushes millions closer to famine, weaponising hunger as a tool in political games, write Aisha Jumaan & Mira Mehta.
6 min read
Using food as a weapon in warfare is a violation of international humanitarian law and constitutes a war crime. [Getty]

Food is one of the oldest weapons of warfare. From WWI to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, starvation has been used to devastate civilian populations by undermining their access to essential sustenance.

As Alex de Waal writes in his book ‘Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine’, blockades, the destruction of food production facilities, and the disruption of markets are not just byproducts of war but are deliberate strategies that target civilian populations to exert pressure and cause suffering.

Perhaps nowhere do we see this more clearly than in Gaza, where the Israeli-imposed siege and indiscriminate war has severely limited the entry of essential goods, including food, pushing 2.2 million Palestinians to the brink of starvation.

In Gaza, Palestinians have been forced to resort to eating animal feed, grass, and spoiled food to survive. 

In Yemen too, almost nine years of the Saudi-led blockade has resulted in a dire humanitarian crisis, 17 million people suffering from food insecurity and 6 million just one step away from famine.

"This deliberate use of hunger as a tactic in warfare by Saudi Arabia and Israel is a severe violation of international humanitarian law, explicitly prohibited in the Geneva Convention"

This deliberate use of hunger as a tactic in warfare by Saudi Arabia and Israel is a severe violation of international humanitarian law, explicitly prohibited in the Geneva Convention.

Engaging in these practices not only constitutes a war crime, but also challenges the moral and legal standards that support global peace and security, highlighting the need for accountability and justice through international legal frameworks.

Now, as the US pursues escalated violence throughout the Middle East, civilians face increasing danger and shrinking support.

Late last year, the World Food Programme (WFP) announced that it would end all food aid to areas of Yemen controlled by the Houthi government, where about 80% of Yemenis live.

Yemen is currently in the ninth year of a civil war between the country’s internationally recognised government with support from a US-backed Saudi Arabia-led coalition and the Houthi government.

The war, coupled with a coalition blockade on Yemen’s ports, has destroyed the economy. Domestic food production accounts for only 30% of Yemen’s current food supply, and more than 65% of the population is reliant on humanitarian aid. The WFP is a major supplier of imported food.

With the Biden administration’s recently launched military campaign in Yemen, the situation is only likely to deteriorate.

Since October, the Houthis have blocked and fired upon Israeli and other commercial ships in the Red Sea, demanding a ceasefire and the delivery of humanitarian aid in Gaza.

In response, the US has carried out airstrikes in Yemen as part of an international military operation intended to protect shipping in the Red Sea. As attacks on shipping continue, Biden has vowed to continue striking, risking Yemen’s fragile peace process.

In light of this context and its own data, the WFP decision to cut food aid is deeply irresponsible and will have serious consequences for food security in Yemen. As the largest donor to the WFP, the US government has the leverage to ensure food is not denied to those who need it.

The WFP has cited disagreements with Houthi authorities over new aid targeting in response to funding cuts as the reason for their decision. WFP officials argue that they want to ensure that increasingly limited amounts of aid reach the most vulnerable.

However, all of the people on the current WFP lists are in severe need of food assistance. Terminating aid to everyone because of differences over who should receive it is a drastic and reckless decision in a country on the brink of famine.

If a non-disabled young Yemeni man without access to food receives the aid instead of a young child, or a pregnant woman, or somebody deemed sufficiently worthy by the appropriately credentialed staff of an international organisation, has that food been wasted?

"Regardless of why the WFP chose to eliminate vital aid to the majority of Yemenis, the decision is unacceptable and will have devastating consequences for millions"

If you believe that all people deserve to have food and survive, the answer must be a resounding no, and no formula for targeting aid exists that would justify its complete termination. This is the first place the WFP reasoning falls apart.

Perhaps more puzzlingly, though, there has been no change in the aid distribution arrangement the WFP was supposed to have with the Houthi-led government in the last four years.

After Houthi–WFP disagreements about aid targeting in 2019 led to a partial suspension of aid to 850,000 people, the two parties reached a deal that allowed the use of biometrics data and transparency to ensure aid reached the most needy.

This compromise system was designed to address WFP concerns about aid diversion and Houthi allegations that coalition operatives had disguised themselves as aid workers in order to scout potential air targets.

The Houthi-led government, for their part, accused the WFP of cutting aid for political reasons, in response to its Red Sea attacks.

If the WFP did indeed base its decision on political grounds, or even justify it as a means to punish the Houthis, then it has violated its stated commitment to ending the use of hunger as a weapon of war.

The US has committed to ending the weaponisation of hunger as well, leading 91 countries in pledging to “end the use of food as a weapon of war” in 2023. If the US is seriously committed to this principle, Congress must act to oppose the denial of food aid to civilians, regardless of their governments’ behaviour.

Ultimately, regardless of why the WFP chose to eliminate vital aid to the majority of Yemenis, the decision is unacceptable and will have devastating consequences for millions of people already devastated by hunger and war.

Congress must condemn this decision, encourage the Biden administration to investigate the situation, and call on the WFP to restore aid to all parts of Yemen to the full extent that its current funding allows.

Dr. Aisha Jumaan is the founder and president of Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation. The foundation aims to increase awareness among the US public and policymakers about the humanitarian crises underway in Yemen, support relief and reconstruction efforts, and facilitate campaigns to bring peace to the country.

Mira Mehta is a junior at Brown University studying economics and international & public affairs. She is the co-Student Director of STAND: the student-led movement to end mass atrocities. The organisation aims to educate and empower young people to advocate against atrocities both domestically and around the world.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.