2024-02-07 04:16:27 UTC
by Alex de Waal
Gaza is experiencing mass starvation like no other in recent history.
Before the outbreak of fighting in October, food security in Gaza was
precarious, but very few children less than 1% suffered severe
acute malnutrition, the most dangerous kind. Today, almost all Gazans,
of any age, anywhere in the territory, are at risk.
There is no instance since the second world war in which an entire
population has been reduced to extreme hunger and destitution with
such speed. And theres no case in which the international obligation
to stop it has been so clear.
These facts underpinned South Africas recent case against Israel at
the international court of justice. The international genocide
convention, article 2c, prohibits deliberately inflicting [on a
group] conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical
destruction in whole or in part.
In ordering provisional measures to prevent potential genocide last
Friday, the ICJ didnt rule on whether Israel is actually committing
genocide that will take years of deliberation but the judges made
it clear that the people of Gaza face conditions of life in which
their survival is in question. Even Justice Aharon Barak, appointed by
Israel to sit on the panel, voted in favour of immediate humanitarian
But a humanitarian disaster such as Gazas today is like a speeding
freight train. Even if the driver puts on the brakes, its momentum
will take it many miles before it stops. Palestinian children in Gaza
will die, in the thousands, even if the barriers to aid are lifted
Starvation is a process. Famine can be its ultimate outcome, unless
stopped in time. The methodology used to categorize food emergencies
is called the integrated food security phase classification system, or
IPC. Its a five-point scale, running from normal (phase 1), stressed,
crisis, and emergency, to catastrophe/famine (phase 5).
In categorizing food emergencies, the IPC draws on three measurements:
families access to food; child malnutrition; and the numbers of
people dying over and above normal rates. Emergency (phase 4)
already sees children dying. For a famine declaration, all three
measures need to pass a certain threshold; if only one is in that
zone, its catastrophe.
The IPCs famine review committee is an independent group of experts
who assess evidence for the most extreme food crises, akin to a high
court of the world humanitarian system. The committee has already
assessed that the entirety of Gaza is under conditions of emergency.
Many areas in the territory are already in catastrophe, it said, and
might reach famine by early February.
Yet whether or not conditions are bad enough for an official
declaration of famine is less important than the situation today,
which is already killing children. Bear in mind that malnutrition
makes humans immune systems more vulnerable to diseases sparked by
lack of clean water and sanitation, and that those diseases are
accelerated by overcrowding in unhealthy camps.
Since the IPC was adopted 20 years ago, there have been major food
emergencies in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo,
Ethiopias Tigray region, north-east Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan,
Sudan and Yemen. Compared to Gaza, these have unfolded slowly, over
periods of a year or more. They have stricken larger populations
spread over wider areas. Hundreds of thousands died, most of them in
emergencies that didnt cross the bar of famine.
And in the most notorious famines of the late 20th century in China,
Cambodia, Nigerias Biafra and Ethiopia the numbers who died were
far higher, but the starvation was also slower and more dispersed.
Never before Gaza have todays humanitarian professionals seen such a
high proportion of the population descend so rapidly towards
All modern famines are directly or indirectly man-made sometimes by
indifference to suffering or dysfunction, other times by war crimes,
and in a few cases by genocide.
The Rome statute of the international criminal court, article
8(2)(b)(xxv), defines the war crime of starvation as intentionally
using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare by depriving them
of objects indispensable to their survival, including wilfully
impeding relief supplies as provided for under the Geneva
The main element of the crime is destruction and deprivation, not just
of food but of anything needed to sustain life, such as medicine,
clean water and shelter. Legally speaking, starvation can constitute
genocide or war crimes even if it doesnt include outright famine.
People dont have to die of hunger; the act of deprivation is enough.
Many wars are starvation crime scenes. In Sudan and South Sudan, its
widespread looting by marauding militia. In Ethiopias Tigray, farms,
factories, schools and hospitals were vandalized and burned, far in
excess of any military logic. In Yemen, most of the country was put
under starvation blockade. In Syria, the regime besieged cities,
demanding they surrender or starve.
The level of destruction of hospitals, water systems and housing in
Gaza, as well as restrictions of trade, employment and aid, surpasses
any of these cases.
It may be true, as Israel claims, that Hamas is using hospitals and
residential neighbourhoods for its own war effort. But that doesnt
exonerate Israel. Much of Israels destruction of Gazan infrastructure
appears to be away from zones of active combat and in excess of what
is proportionate to military necessity.
The most extreme historical cases such as Stalins Holodomor in
Ukraine in the 1930s and the Nazi hunger plan on the eastern front
during the second world war were genocidal famines at immense scale.
Gaza doesnt approach these, but Israel will need to act decisively if
it is to escape the charge of having used hunger to exterminate the
Palestinians. Starvation is a massacre in slow motion. And unlike
shooting or bombing, the dying continues for weeks even if killing is
This is the challenge facing the UN security council when it will soon
debate the ICJs provisional orders to Israel. Just allowing in aid
and putting some restraints on Israels military action are not going
to stop this thundering train of catastrophe quickly enough.
More than a month ago, the famine review committee wrote: The
cessation of hostilities and the restoration of humanitarian space to
deliver this multi-sectoral assistance and restore services are
essential first steps in eliminating any risk of famine. In other
words, an immediate end to fighting is essential to prevent a
calamitous toll that may far exceed the numbers killed by violence.
Thats the operative line. For the survival of the people of Gaza
today, it doesnt matter whether Israel intends genocide or not.
Unless Israel follows the famine relief committee recommendations, it
will knowingly cause mass death by hunger and disease. Thats a
And if the US and UK fail to use every possible lever to stop the
catastrophe, they will be complicit.
Alex de Waal is the executive director of the World Peace Foundation
at Tufts University and the author of Mass Starvation: The History and
Future of Famine