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“Israel Is Starving Gaza”: Israeli Rights Group B’Tselem Says IDF Is Using Hunger as a Weapon of War

StoryJanuary 10, 2024
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Human rights groups say Israel is using starvation as a weapon in the Gaza Strip as Israel severely restricts the delivery of humanitarian aid, medicine and food supplies to millions inside the besieged and bombed territory. In a new report,” Israeli human rights group B’Tselem lays out how Israel’s decision to cut off electricity, water and international humanitarian aid to Gaza after a 17-year blockade against the territory has led to a very quick collapse of infrastructure. “The things that impede this provision of food for people who are starving is a declared policy by Israel,” says Sarit Michaeli, B’Tselem international advocacy lead. “The Israeli government is at fault, is responsible for this, and this should lead to immediate international action.”

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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.

Several United Nations agencies, including the World Food Programme, say Israel’s bombardment of Gaza could lead to a famine throughout the entire Gaza Strip within six months, unless immediate action is taken. Hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians are now in Rafah, and many are waiting in line for hours for small amounts of food, as aid agencies struggle to meet the demand.

MARIAM AL-AHMAD: [translated] I came here to get food. I’ve been here since 9 a.m. just to get a plate full of food, because the situation is very difficult. We are from Gaza City, and we came to Rafah. The people of Rafah received us and welcomed us, but the numbers are large, and the situation is very difficult. … There is no money to buy food, and there’s no flour. We have no money to buy anything at home. There is no gas or anything that would help us to cook even a plate of lentils. We come here to get this plate of food, and it is not enough.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as hundreds of trucks trying to bring aid to Gaza are backed up for miles in Egypt at the Rafah border crossing and have been forced to wait for weeks to enter. On Tuesday, British Foreign Secretary David Cameron urged Israel to lift barriers on delivering humanitarian aid into Gaza, citing, quote, “real widespread hunger.” Cameron was cross-examined by the Scottish MP Brendan O’Hara.

BRENDAN O’HARA: Two or three minutes ago, in answer, a reply to the chair, you said — and I quote — “One of the things we’d like the Israelis to do is switch the water back on.” Now, that says that they turned it off. It says that you recognize they have the power to turn it on. Therefore, isn’t turning water off and having the ability to turn it back on but choosing not to — isn’t that a breach of international humanitarian law?

DAVID CAMERON: It’s just something they ought to do, in my opinion.

BRENDAN O’HARA: No. Of course they should do it. Every human being would say you don’t cut people’s water supply off. But I’m asking you, in your position as foreign secretary —

DAVID CAMERON: Well, I don’t know. I mean —

BRENDAN O’HARA: — around a point of international humanitarian law. If Israel have the power to turn the water back on that they turned off, surely, that is a flagrant breach of international humanitarian law.

DAVID CAMERON: Well, I’m not a lawyer. My view is they ought to switch it on, because the north of Gaza, the conflict is now effectively over there, and so getting more water and power into northern Gaza would be a very good thing to do. You don’t have to be a lawyer to make a judgment about that. You just have to be a human being.

AMY GOODMAN: Last month, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution to immediately increase aid deliveries in Gaza, and Human Rights Watch accused Israel of using starvation as a method of warfare, which violates international humanitarian law.

Well, for more, we’re going to Tel Aviv. We’re joined by Sarit Michaeli, international advocacy lead for the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, which has just published a new report, “Israel is starving Gaza,” that says starvation is, quote, “not a byproduct of war, but a direct result of Israel’s declared policy.”

Sarit, welcome to Democracy Now! Lay out exactly what you found and what you feel can be done about it.

SARIT MICHAELI: Well, in very basic terms, almost everyone in Gaza is hungry almost all of the time. Two-point-three million people are surviving mostly on sometimes one meal a day, people skipping meals in order to feed their children, people busy constantly looking for the next meal, for the next source of food for them and their families and children.

And all of this is happening in a place that is pretty much an hour’s drive from here — right? — where supplying humanitarian assistance and food and all the necessities, like water and other things that people rely on, should not be a difficult problem. We’re not talking about some sort of remote region internationally. We’re talking about an area that is accessible, where the things that impede this provision of food for people who are starving is a declared policy by Israel — the fact that Israel isn’t allowing enough trucks in, the fact that Israel isn’t providing the ability, the logistical infrastructure to actually drive this food into Gaza through places where it’s possible to do, and many other decisions taken by the Israeli government that are impacting this, that are making it — making the amount of assistance that is coming into Gaza simply a fraction of what the population need.

And, Amy, you quoted the international experts on this issue. Within a month, they expect almost all of the residents of the Gaza Strip to be up to what is phase three of this scale of horror of hunger. And this is simply unacceptable when it’s very clearly preventable. And the things that were said in the British Parliament by Minister Cameron are very clearly a clarification that this is the result of Israeli policies and actions. This is not just some sort of coincidence or just some unfortunate byproduct of war.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Sarit, I wanted to ask you: How is Israel controlling the food supply, especially in Rafah, where Rafah leads into Egypt? So, how exactly does it manage to continue to — 

SARIT MICHAELI: Right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — prevent trucks from getting in?

SARIT MICHAELI: So, Juan, let’s even look at the past situation. I mean, Gaza was on the brink of collapse even before this war began with the horrific October 7th attack by Hamas against Israelis, right? So, this has been a situation of food insecurity since the beginning of the Israeli blockade on Gaza almost 17 years ago. But the Israeli decisions to cut off electricity, to cut off the water supply, that Israel sells Gaza, to not allow all of the movement of the international humanitarian provision of supplies, those decisions made it almost impossible, from the start, for even bakeries to operate and provide for the people. And now what we — so, the collapse was very quick and based on a very long period of deprivation.

But now the issue really is that there needs to be hundreds of trucks entering Gaza every day, and just a fraction of that is entering. This is happening because the Rafah crossing is just not equipped for the movement of goods. Goods should be entering Gaza through other border crossings, that are generally with Israel, not with Egypt. Israel is also prohibiting the provision of food purchased on the Israeli market, so the aid agencies have to bring it from Egypt, which is even more difficult. Plus, there are also many restrictions on the ability to distribute it once it actually gets into the Gaza Strip. And then we see these awful images of desperate people charging these provision convoys that are coming in, and taking what they can, because they are simply so desperate, and the food isn’t reaching some areas of Gaza. So you have a situation where in some areas of Gaza things are only just bad, whereas in others things are just absolutely atrocious. And this is not a very large area.

So, certainly — and I think it’s recognized now by the international community — the Israeli government is at fault, is responsible for this. And this should lead to immediate international action, not simply conversations with Israeli policymakers, but actually clear clarifications that Israel is violating both its legal obligations — i.e. this is a war crime — and also that this is simply an immoral way to treat a civilian population.

AMY GOODMAN: After a visit to the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza, U.S. Democratic Senators Jeff Merkley and Chris Van Hollen blasted the Israeli process for screening the aid. Senator Van Hollen spoke to CBS Face the Nation. This is what he said.

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Many items that should be allowed to go into Gaza — water sort of filtration systems, other systems like that — were in a warehouse of rejected items that we visited. While we were there, we saw a truck turned away that had a big box from UNICEF, which is, of course, the U.N. organization that helps children. It was a unit to help with water desalinization. It was rejected. And when one item on a truck is rejected, the entire truck is rejected. The other big issue is within Gaza, the so-called deconfliction process, which is just a fancy name for those who are providing humanitarian assistance to have the confidence that they can deliver it without being killed.

AMY GOODMAN: If you can talk more about this, Sarit? Again, the senator, Van Hollen, is the one who has also called for the release of more information about the Israeli sniper who murdered Shirin Abu Akleh on May 11th, 2022, in Jenin, in the occupied West Bank.

SARIT MICHAELI: Yeah, absolutely, Amy. Well, we certainly appreciate the leadership that Senator Van Hollen and, actually, Senator Merkley are showing on this issue. And it is absolutely crucial that U.S. lawmakers, both from the more progressive part of the Democratic Party but also from the mainstream, security-oriented, kind of more established part of the Democratic Party, are engaging with President Biden to demand action on this issue — simply an unconscionable situation that is unfolding in front of us.

Now, I’d like to refer to the second part of Senator Hollen’s discussion of the dangers inside of Gaza. Yes,, absolutely, there’s been another update by the office of — the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs discussing an additional rejection by the Israeli authorities of another attempt to coordinate the transfer of medical goods into hospitals in the northern Gaza Strip. This was only the day before yesterday, apparently. So, we’re seeing that there are simply so many difficulties in trying to bring the aid, deliver the aid, with safety for the aid providers, obviously, in this area that is bombed.

And this brings us to the essential issue, which is that there needs to be a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. There needs to be a halt to Israeli airstrikes and bombardments in order for this food and aid and assistance — and not only food; medical supplies and other necessities have to be provided. And this is one — the continuation of the hostilities is making this provision far too dangerous and impossible currently. This is one other reason why we need this to stop.

B’Tselem has called for a ceasefire. But, of course, the most important reason for this to stop is to stop the killing of civilians, of women and children and human beings in the Gaza Strip, in a way that absolutely is disproportionate to what is facing Israel right now, and to the policies of, basically, airstrikes bombing residential homes. All of this is one — you know, and the huge death toll, 23,000 Gazans and counting, as a result, you know, that can only be described as a revenge attack after the horrific death toll that Israelis have suffered. But we simply cannot accept. You know, it’s certainly not moral, and it’s certainly not legal, that we inflict such a degree of suffering on Gazans — we Israelis — regardless of how much we have suffered and how horrific we have been affected by this. There is simply no justification for the continuation of this Israeli attack on Gaza, and it has to stop. There has to be a ceasefire.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Sarit, I wanted to ask you — you’re talking to us from Tel Aviv. How aware are Israelis of the catastrophic situation so close to where most of them live? And is there any significant portion of the population that cares?

SARIT MICHAELI: Well, unfortunately, Juan, the situation is very, very depressing and just painful when we look at the responses of many Israelis, possibly even the majority of Israelis, to what we see now in Gaza. I think the majority of Israelis still support what we are doing there. There is very little protest or very little rejection of the methods that Israel is employing in its attack against the civilian population of Gaza. The Israeli media doesn’t really broadcast much information about the suffering of Gazans, the devastation, the utter devastation, of infrastructure and the loss of homes, and human beings being killed on a daily basis, on an hourly basis.

But one of the saddest aspects of this is that even when people are aware of it, there are so many politicians and influencers and people who are simply rejecting any need to respect the humanity of people in Gaza. And unfortunately, some of the people who are aware of the huge price, the horrific toll that Gazans are paying, are not — you know, are simply OK with it. And this is one of the most depressing aspects of what is going on now in terms of the total dehumanization of Gazans among many people in Israel.

There are — I should mention there are Israelis who are opposed to this situation. There are Israelis who are calling to recognize the humanity of Gazans. But we are in the minority, unfortunately.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, we have less than a minute left, but I wanted to ask you, quickly — you’ve also been monitoring the violence in the West Bank, that has gotten far less attention. Could you talk about what you’ve chronicled?

SARIT MICHAELI: Absolutely, yes. So, since October 7th, there has also been a massive increase in the violence by Israeli soldiers and also security forces and Israeli settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank. It has led to a really large number of Palestinians killed by soldiers and by Israeli settlers. It has led to takeovers of land by settlers, to the removal, to the forcible transfer of Palestinian herding communities from very large parts of the West Bank. It’s led to, you know, the total destruction of the olive harvest, for example, as a coordinated campaign by settlers to damage the Palestinian economy. And all of these things are happening with very little international attention.

And again, this has got to end. There has to be a recognition of what is going on throughout the West Bank, of Israeli actions there. And as we call when it comes to the situation in the Gaza Strip, there has to be international action to hold Israeli policymakers accountable for their decisions that have led to these horrific results, horrific outcomes.

AMY GOODMAN: Sarit Michaeli, we have to leave it there. We thank you so much for being with us, with the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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