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Famine expert Alex de Waal on Israel’s starvation of Gaza

‘The responsibility for that lies overwhelmingly with Israel. It will have to pay not only financially but morally and legally as well.’

This is a medium shot showing a group of Palestinians flock to the truck carrying drinkable water as they face the threat of hunger and thirst in Rafah, Gaza on December 11, 2023. At the centre we see the back of a young person with their hands raised. Abed Zagout/Anadolu
Palestinians rush to a truck carrying drinkable water in Rafah, southern Gaza, on 11 December 2023.

While there hasn’t been an official declaration, famine is already taking place in parts of the Gaza Strip, UN officials said this week. It has arrived with unprecedented speed, as Israel has laid total siege to the enclave for more than three months and carried out a massive bombing campaign that has destroyed much of the infrastructure needed to sustain life.

The deliberate starvation of civilians is a war crime, and the allegation that Israel is creating the risk of death from starvation in Gaza is central to the case being brought by South Africa at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) accusing Israel of genocide.

To better understand the hunger situation in Gaza, The New Humanitarian sat down with Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in the US, and an expert of famine and humanitarian crises.

As starvation and deadly disease outbreaks spread, UN agencies are calling for a fundamental change in the amount of aid entering Gaza as well as increased access and safety guarantees from Israel to allow humanitarian activities to take place inside the territory.

But even if there is a massive increase in the amount of assistance entering Gaza, the dire conditions are “not something that can be turned around overnight”, de Waal said. And if the aid delivery and access situation isn’t soon reversed, “it won't be long before children, young children, start dying in large numbers of hunger and disease,” he added.

What's different about the Gaza case is the speed and the comprehensiveness of that destruction. We have not seen a population reduced from a situation of stress to an acute extreme emergency on this scale in a matter of months.

A deal announced on 16 January – brokered by France and Qatar – will allow more humanitarian aid to enter Gaza in exchange for medicine for the estimated 136 Israeli and foreign hostages who continue to be held by Hamas, the Palestinian political and militant group that governs the enclave. The hostages were taken during the deadly raid into Israel by Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups on 7 October that precipitated the current war.

It is unclear how much aid will enter Gaza under the deal or how long it might last. Israel has only allowed a trickle of humanitarian assistance into the enclave since announcing the total siege on 9 October.

A food security assessment carried out by a group of UN-backed experts at the end of November and early December found that the entire population of Gaza – some 2.3 million people – was facing the imminent risk of famine, and around 60% of the population was experiencing “catastrophic” or “emergency” levels of food insecurity.

Since then, the situation has only gotten worse, according to de Waal.

Israeli officials say there is enough food and water for people in Gaza and place blame for shortages on the UN for not employing more workers or bringing more trucks to facilitate aid delivery. UN officials have rejected this explanation, pointing instead to Israel’s cumbersome aid inspection process, ongoing hostilities that make aid distribution dangerous, and Israel’s frequent refusal to give security guarantees to UN aid missions in the enclave.

Overall, more than 24,000 people (around 70% of them women and children) have been killed by Israel’s military campaign in Gaza since 7 October, according to health officials in the enclave. Around 85% of people in Gaza have been displaced from their homes, with many having been forced to flee multiple times, according to the UN. And the enclave’s healthcare system is collapsing, according to the World Health Organization.

Deaths from disease and hunger could soon surpass conflict-related deaths in Gaza, the UN and aid organisations have warned.

The New Humanitarian’s conversation with de Waal covered what famines are, how the situation in Gaza compares to other recent food crises, the legal ramifications of starvation being used as a weapon of war, and what urgent steps need to be taken to bring the population of Gaza back from the brink of mass starvation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The New Humanitarian: What does the word famine mean in practical terms and how does it apply to what we are seeing in Gaza?

De Waal: The word famine has historically been defined in a rather general way as referring to an episode of food crisis and mass excess death related to hunger, disease, and related causes. The lack of precision of the term led about 20 years ago to a group of humanitarian agencies working in the Horn of Africa to develop a standardised metric, a scale, called the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification System (IPC), which had five different levels of food crisis ranging from normal, which is not a crisis at all, through stressed, crisis, and emergency, to famine.

Level five, famine, is distinct. It has two branches, and the reason for this is that a famine declaration requires thresholds to be met in terms of food availability and livelihoods, malnutrition, and excess mortality. Only if those three are met for a specific location is a famine declared. If one is met and there is a fear that the others will in due course be met, then it's called catastrophe, and the famine warning may be issued. And that's what's happened in the case of Gaza.

So famine has not been declared. In fact, it's very rare for famine to be declared. And there's a key point here: a famine declaration misses the point that, even in a crisis that is ‘only’ an emergency, people are still dying, and that is still calamitous.

You can have very large-scale crises that are IPC level four emergencies, in countries like Yemen and South Sudan, that kill hundreds of thousands of people, without a famine being declared. So I think the focus, sometimes the obsession, with what some call the “F word” detracts attention from the gravity and nature of crises that don't breach those thresholds.

The New Humanitarian: In general, what is the significance of the Famine Review Committee declaring a famine in a particular context? What type of action does it precipitate?

De Waal: The declaration of either the threat of famine or an actual famine by the Famine Review Committee has no legal force. But it has moral weight, and it has weight in the policy world.

Back in 2011, in the case of Somalia, the declaration of famine prompted the United States administration of President Obama to find a way to work around the restrictions that it had imposed on international agencies operating in Somalia. In that situation, one of the belligerents was a terrorist group, and the Patriot Act prohibited the US from dealing with any agency that allowed resources to go to a terrorist group and opened the door for the criminal prosecution of such an agency.

The famine declaration pushed the United States to find a workaround. That's an example of the political impact that it can have.

For that reason, governments that are involved in creating famine – as in South Sudan, in Nigeria, in Ethiopia most recently, or the Saudis and Emirates in the case of Yemen – are very keen to avoid the stigma associated with the famine declaration. In that regard, the famine label has become somewhat problematic. So a famine warning has been made very loud and clear in the case of Gaza.

It should be a wake-up call. It should be a call to Israel to stop creating those conditions of humanitarian emergency, for the states that have influence over Israel – mainly the United States – to stop facilitating Israel doing that, and for others to move in and step up their humanitarian response.

The New Humanitarian: As you mentioned, there have been a number of contexts where governments have either tried to delay or derail famine declarations. Is there any indication that Israel or its allies, including the US, are trying to do this in Gaza at the moment?

De Waal: At the moment, they seem to be simply ignoring it, to be frank. Let's go back a step here: the data on which the Famine Review Committee – which is entirely impartial and independent – used to make its assessment was collected between late November and early December. It published its findings on 21 December, and it's said that, if current conditions continued, by February there was a grave possibility that a very severe humanitarian crisis, including major risks of outbreaks of communicable diseases, would tip over into famine.

In the intervening weeks since the data were collected, which is now more than a month ago, nothing has changed. Essentially, the situation has simply got worse.

The legal issue here, which is separate from anything the Famine Review Committee may say, is that there is prima facie evidence that Israel is committing the war crime of starvation; that it is destroying objects indispensable for the survival of the civilian population on a very large scale and in a reckless manner that is leading to enormous humanitarian suffering.

South Africa brought an application to the International Court of Justice on the grounds that it is plausible that Israel is committing genocide. And the specific issue here is that it is creating conditions of life calculated to make it impossible for people to survive, which is essentially the same act as the war crime of starvation. Maybe a different intent, but the outcome is exactly the same.

So whatever happens, there is a distinct possibility of Israel being liable for violations of international humanitarian law, international criminal law, and even the Genocide Convention that lead to mass starvation. The countries that are arming Israel, including the United States, may be accomplices in such a crime.

The New Humanitarian: We are getting close to the beginning of February, when the IPC said that it expected the entire population of Gaza to be at crisis levels of hunger or worse. Do you think there will be another review and possibly the finding that famine is taking place in Gaza? And do you think that would change anything?

De Waal: It will be difficult for there to be a second review if active hostilities continue. There was a pause in hostilities for hostages to be released and for a modest amount of humanitarian aid to come in, which allowed for data to be collected. It’s going to be more and more difficult to collect data as the level of destruction continues.

At the moment, there’s no indication that any of these findings are deterring Israel in any way at all. But one hopes that the moral force of the arguments at the International Court of Justice, the appeals of humanitarian agencies, and the findings of the Famine Review Committee might actually activate something.

Additionally, there is another mechanism, which is the UN Security Council Resolution 2417, passed in in 2018. It requires the UN Secretary General to swiftly – and I stress the word swiftly – report to the UN Security Council if an armed conflict threatens to create widespread food insecurity. What is happening in Gaza is a paradigmatic case of that.

And as of now, the UN Secretary General has not acted on his obligations under Security Council Resolution 2417. Maybe he anticipates a veto from one or another of the Security Council members, but that should not deter him from bringing the matter to the Council on his own authority, as he is obliged to do.

The New Humanitarian: How do the causes of famine in Gaza compare to other contexts where we're currently seeing acute food insecurity or some of the other contexts where the risk of famine has been part of conflicts that we've seen recently?

De Waal: In the immediate or very recent past, the fact that the humanitarian crisis and starvation and communicable disease, etcetera, is arising from siege and the deliberate, large-scale destruction of what is necessary to sustain life, that is broadly similar to other cases like Yemen, Northeast Nigeria, South Sudan, parts of Sudan, the Tigray region in Ethiopia.

What's different about the Gaza case is the speed and the comprehensiveness of that destruction. We have not seen a population reduced from a situation of stress – because Gaza was never a normal food security situation – to an acute extreme emergency on this scale in a matter of months. It usually takes much longer to happen.

It's dissimilar to other cases in recent decades. Perhaps it’s most similar to some of the sieges during the Syrian war. But the level of destruction in Gaza far exceeds that of even the most extreme sieges in Syria.

We can go back to cases like the Biafra war, which killed large numbers of people. And indeed, historic famines have killed many more people, but that's because they affected very large populations, whereas the population of Gaza is only 2.2 million. We really have to go back to World War II to see comparable cases in terms of the speed, scale, and determination with which the siege is being enforced and objects indispensable to survival are being destroyed.

The New Humanitarian: What does international law have to say about sieges and military campaigns causing starvation or famine? And does the famine threshold have to be crossed for Israel's actions to violate international law?

De Waal: The war crime of starvation does not require people to actually die. What it requires is that the perpetrator intentionally destroys objects indispensable to survival. The prohibitions on siege, similarly, relate to depriving populations of foodstuffs and other essentials. They do not require any particular threshold of death through starvation and related causes to be crossed.

That said, once those thresholds have been crossed, it clearly makes the nature of the crime more grave, more serious, if large numbers of people are dying.

So if we look at the way that the International Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia treated the siege of Sarajevo, the prosecutors mistakenly felt that they shouldn't press starvation charges against the Bosnian Serb besieging commanders on the grounds that people had not starved en masse. The law actually does not say that people need to starve to death en masse. The act of deliberate deprivation needs to have been undertaken for the act to be prohibited.

The New Humanitarian: If Israel is committing the crime of starvation – or other related crimes – in Gaza, what avenues exist to hold it accountable for that?

De Waal: There is the International Criminal Court, which could hold individuals accountable for committing these crimes or being in a command position. That would take a long time, and it might have a deterrent effect if the ICC were to indicate that it is going to undertake such investigations.

The immediate possible impact is through the International Court of Justice, and the judges are, as we speak, deliberating on the case brought by South Africa. At this stage, all the ICJ needs to do is ascertain that there is a plausible case that maybe actions prohibited under the Genocide Convention are taking place, and that's a relatively low bar. 

The court could instruct Israel to do one of a number of things: It could instruct Israel to cease all hostilities in Gaza. That was the first request of the South African application. In my personal view, it's unlikely to instruct Israel to do that because Israel is in a war and the other belligerent, Hamas, is not involved in the case. So the court could not instruct Hamas also to cease hostilities.

But what the court could instruct Israel to do is to cease actions that are creating this humanitarian crisis: cease the destruction of objects indispensable to survival; cease the siege; permit and facilitate humanitarian access. And we know that this can be done in situations of war. It is done routinely in situations of conflict in different parts of the world. You don't actually need a ceasefire. You can have all sorts of other measures that can enable lives to be saved.

The ICJ has not had a case like this before it, so it is not clear what it will decide. If the ICJ were to instruct Israel to take certain actions, Israel could of course refuse to comply, like it did with the previous ICJ ruling on the construction of the wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Then the case could go to the UN Security Council and, if the United States did not veto it, then there would be a UN Security Council resolution ordering Israel to comply. And that would be more challenging for Israel, not least because its military action relies very heavily on the armaments provided by the United States.

The New Humanitarian: If Israel starts allowing more aid to enter Gaza now, will that be enough to prevent starvation and bring the population back from the brink of famine?

De Waal: More aid is obviously better, but no matter how much aid is provided, if the destruction of objects indispensable to survival continues, the risk of famine will continue and the prospects for actually having any form of stabilisation or recovery of that population will be remote. 

This isn't just a question whereby setting up some soup kitchens and some mobile clinics will stop this humanitarian emergency. The damage that is being done is far in excess of what can be managed by those types of measures. The humanitarian imperative goes beyond stopping further deterioration to bringing all aspects of life in Gaza back to something that is tolerable.

The responsibility for that lies overwhelmingly with Israel. It will have to pay not only financially but morally and legally as well. 

The New Humanitarian: Would allowing more aid in mitigate the argument that Israel has committed the crime of starvation?

De Waal: It would not in any way mitigate what it has committed up to now. Depending on the amount of aid and depending on what other measures are brought in alongside bringing in aid, it might work as a plea of mitigation in terms of the crimes committed thus far.

The New Humanitarian: What steps should international aid actors be preparing to take to alleviate famine conditions in Gaza as quickly as possible if restrictions on humanitarian assistance are eased? 

De Waal: This needs to be a full spectrum emergency relief operation including rehabilitating water, sanitation, health facilities, shelter, across the entire board. I mean virtually everyone in Gaza is in need of immediate, sustained, full spectrum assistance and protection.

We must not forget or overlook the need for protection of civilians. It seems eminently clear to all who have looked at the conduct of hostilities by Israel that the norms of protection of civilians, the normal rules of proportionality, have been utterly and consistently violated.

The New Humanitarian: If we don’t begin to see more aid being allowed in and the conditions for a broader humanitarian response met in Gaza, what do you expect to see in the coming weeks or months in terms of the food security and famine situation? 

De Waal: It is going to get unimaginably worse because, across the board, every single thing necessary for life is being destroyed. 

Let’s not forget that it’s cold and wet. People don’t have shelter; they don’t have basic sanitation. It’s not just a matter of food.

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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