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Starvation as a Weapon of War: Human Rights Watch Denounces Israel for Denying Gaza Access to Food

StoryDecember 19, 2023
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Israel is deliberately blocking the delivery of water, food and fuel in Gaza, prompting Human Rights Watch to accuse the occupation of utilizing starvation as a weapon of war. Human Rights Watch’s Israel and Palestine director, Omar Shakir, says 97% of the groundwater in Gaza is unfit for human consumption after the destruction of pipelines and treatment sources, the rejection of humanitarian aid and the collapse of the medical system under incessant bombing, leading to mass dehydration and contagious disease. Shakir calls on the international community to condemn Israel’s actions and to increase pressure on U.S. support in particular. “The United States and Israel are isolated in the international community,” Shakir says. “The use of double standards in Israel and Palestine harms civilians all over the world.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

As the death toll in Gaza nears 20,000, Human Rights Watch has accused the Israeli government of using starvation as a weapon of war in Gaza. Human Rights Watch says Israel has deliberately blocked the delivery of water, food and fuel, while willfully impeding humanitarian assistance. The group said Israel has also apparently razed agricultural areas inside Gaza as many Palestinians face starvation.

We’re joined now by Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, which has just published a report headlined “Israel: Starvation Used as Weapon of War in Gaza.” He’s joining us from Amman, Jordan.

Omar, why don’t you lay out your findings?

OMAR SHAKIR: We found five very disturbing trends coming together that led us to this conclusion, the first of which has been for more than two months now the Israeli government has been blocking all but a trickle of aid, food and water from entering the Gaza Strip. Secondly, the Israeli government has, in essence, cut off the entry and exit of goods from its own crossings with Gaza, despite being the occupying power that’s obligated to provide for the civilian population. Third, satellite imagery that we’ve been carefully studying shows the apparent deliberate razing of agricultural land. You can see entire farms and other areas turned from lush green agricultural land into barren wasteland in different parts of the Gaza Strip. Fourth, we look at the destruction of the kinds of objects necessary for human survival — bakeries, wheat mills, sanitation and water facilities, hospitals. In northern Gaza, you cannot find many of these facilities that are functioning. And fifth and finally, statements from Israeli government officials that set out in very plain terms — and this includes the defense minister, the national security minister, members of COGAT, the Israeli army — that state clearly that they will continue to prevent these basic supplies — food, water, aid — from entering until they accomplish the objectives they’ve set, such as the return of hostages and the destruction of Hamas. All this collectively amounts to starvation used as weapon of war, which is an abhorrent war crime, adding to the Israeli government’s many other war crimes, like collective punishment, that have been taking over the last 10 weeks.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Omar, specifically in terms of the deprivation of clean water to drink and fuel, could you talk about the impacts of this policy in terms of the spread of disease and access to food?

OMAR SHAKIR: Absolutely. Look, I mean, I think water is a basic thing that’s needed for health services, for everyday life, for cleaning. And you’ve seen several things take place with water. The first thing is to note that 97% of the groundwater in Gaza is unfit for human consumption as a result of overextraction of the ground aquifer that comes in from Israel, so Gaza has long relied on water that’s coming in from Israel. Israel cut that water supply after October 7th. It’s resumed piping to parts of southern Gaza, but in northern Gaza that’s not the case. We’ve also seen significant destruction of the water infrastructure. We’ve also seen destruction to other water facilities, pipelines. And you have the lack of fuel, that’s led to the shutdown of desalinization and water pumping facilities.

So you have some water coming in on trucks, but bottled water is not enough to allow the population to drink, for hospitals to function, for sanitation to take place. And the results are quite deadly. We’re already hearing, seeing reports of thousands of cases of contagious diseases, and we’re seeing hospitals trying to make do. And, of course, the majority of hospitals in Gaza are not functioning. The Israeli government has been systematically attacking hospitals, especially in northern Gaza. But those that are operating are trying to do so without adequate supply of medical supplies and water. And the consequences are stark. And they will get worse unless we see the taps switched on water and the ability for the water infrastructure to be repaired, and fuel to enter, so those pumping stations and desalinization plants can operate.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What actions do you see necessary by the international community at this point, especially given the fact that the United States continues to veto any resolutions in the Security Council?

OMAR SHAKIR: I think today’s U.N. Security Council vote is quite essential. There’s an opportunity to take concrete action to protect civilians. It’s critical that states support that resolution, and the United States not exercise its veto. Lives quite literally hang in the balance.

Beyond the action at the Security Council, there is absolutely a need for states to unequivocally condemn this war crime. We’ve seen far too often, especially the United States and its allies in Europe that are condemning, rightfully, abuses that are carried out by Palestinian armed groups, but not using the same language to condemn the clear war crimes committed by the Israeli government.

There needs to be a call for an immediate resumption of full aid, not the trickle that’s being allowed in. But the aid alone is not enough. There needs to be a restoration of electricity, water and other basic services. And ultimately, that’s not going to matter, if unlawful attacks and incessant bombardment continue to wreak havoc on the lives of people. There must be an end to unlawful attacks.

And obviously, more long term, beyond these sort of immediate needs of the civilian population, there are a couple of essential things that are needed. One, there must be accountability for unlawful attacks and other violations, including at the International Criminal Court. Secondly, there must be an addressing of root causes, such as Israel’s apartheid against Palestinians. And finally, all states must evaluate all forms of potential complicity in these grave abuses. And in the case of the United States, that means imposing an arms embargo, ending the provision of military assistance and arms, given the high risk they’ll be used in the commission of grave abuses.

AMY GOODMAN: If you can talk, Omar Shakir, about the Biden administration’s, to say the least, mixed message, bypassing Congress, sending tank artillery that is being used against Palestinians, saying that they’re staunchly behind Israel, then at the same time saying they’re putting out a private message that they’ve got to reduce the casualties, and at the same time vetoing U.N. Security Council resolutions, though it’s not clear what’s going to happen today? They want the language watered down, but may not stop that resolution from going forward. We’ll find out soon. Can you talk about what exactly the U.S. is doing versus France calling for a ceasefire, versus Germany, Britain, and what it would mean if the U.S. were on the front of calling for permanent ceasefire?

OMAR SHAKIR: Look, I think the United States and Israel are isolated in the international community. There’s a growing consensus, as reflected in U.N. votes and otherwise, about the enormity of the catastrophe that we’re seeing taking place in Gaza and the urgent need for action to end that.

There has indeed been a shift in the U.S. government rhetoric. President Biden spoke of Israel’s indiscriminate bombing in Gaza. Indiscriminate bombing is a violation of the laws of war. So, if this is the assessment of the Biden administration, how can it justify providing military support? That risks complicity in what they themselves have acknowledged to be war crimes. The reality here is the Israeli government has a long track record of unlawful attacks. U.S. weapons, as has been documented in previous rounds of hostilities by Human Rights Watch, as has been documented by Amnesty International, has itself been used in the commission of grave abuses over the years. The reality here is the United States, by continuing to provide arms and diplomatic cover to the Israeli government as it commits atrocity, risks complicity in these underlying abuses. That not only sends the wrong message, that not only undermines the protection of Israeli and Palestinian civilians, but it undermines the very international human rights and humanitarian law that the United States mobilizes and cites when it comes to places like Ukraine and elsewhere in the world. Undermining the protection of civilians, the use of double standards in Israel-Palestine harms civilians everywhere in the world.

The Biden administration has the chance to make the right choice here to begin to match some of its recent words with action, and we hope the United States will not veto today’s resolution. Doing so will be incredibly damaging to civilians on the ground and to the United States in its position globally.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds, but this issue of starvation is not only being raised by Human Rights Watch. World Food Programme warned of the immediate possibility of starvation on December 6th. You have this high risk of famine right through to now. As we wrap up, what this means? We just heard our previous guest talking about what’s happened to his children, from disease to hunger. Your final comment?

OMAR SHAKIR: Look, you have a reality where nine out of 10 households in north Gaza have gone — you have a reality where nine of 10 households, according to the World Food Programme, in north Gaza have been without food for a whole day and a whole night. Imagine families that have to spend hours or more a day just to be able to get a couple of pieces of bread to feed their family. We’re seeing hundreds of bodies pile up a day in airstrikes. We risk seeing that or more in the days ahead if there isn’t urgent action by world leaders to end these atrocities. We’ve been on the wrong side of this.

AMY GOODMAN: Omar Shakir of Human Rights Watch, we thank you so much for being with us. And we wrap by saying happy birthday to Renée Feltz.

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