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Israel Kills 104 Palestinians Waiting for Food Aid as U.N. Expert Accuses Israel of Starving Gaza

StoryFebruary 29, 2024
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In Gaza City, at least 104 Palestinian refugees were killed Thursday when Israeli troops opened fire on a crowd waiting for food aid. “This isn’t the first time people have been shot at by Israeli forces while people have been trying to access food,” says the U.N.'s special rapporteur on the right to food, Michael Fakhri, who accuses Israel of the war crime of intentional starvation. This comes as reports grow of Palestinians resorting to animal feed and cactus leaves for sustenance and as experts warn of imminent agricultural collapse. “Every single person in Gaza is hungry,” says Fakhri, who emphasizes that famine in the modern context is a human-made catastrophe. “At this point I'm running out of words to be able to describe the horror of what’s happening and how vile the actions have been by Israel against the Palestinian civilians.”

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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 Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Palestinians waiting for humanitarian aid in Gaza are coming under fire from Israeli forces in Gaza as acute hunger and severe malnutrition are spreading. In the latest attack earlier today, over a hundred Palestinians were killed and more than 700 wounded in Gaza City when they came under fire from Israeli tanks and drones.

Over half a million people in Gaza are on the cusp of starvation, while virtually the entire population of 2.3 million people is in desperate need of food as a result of the continued Israeli bombardment, ground attacks and ongoing siege. According to the United Nations, the amount of aid reaching the Palestinian territory dropped by 50% in February compared to the previous month.

This is Ramesh Rajasingham, coordination director of the U.N.’s humanitarian office, speaking at the Security Council on Wednesday.

RAMESH RAJASINGHAM: In December, it was projected that the entire population of 2.2 million people in Gaza would face high levels of acute food insecurity by February 2024 — the highest share of people facing this level of food insecurity ever recorded worldwide. And here we are at the end of February with at least 576,000 people in Gaza, one-quarter of the population, one step away from famine.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food, Michael Fakhri, says Israel is intentionally starving Palestinians and should be held accountable for war crimes. Michael Fakhri joins us now from Eugene, Oregon. He’s a professor of law at the University of Oregon.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Michael Fakhri. Why don’t you lay out what you understand is happening? And what is international law around the right to food?

MICHAEL FAKHRI: Yes. Thank you, Amy.

Every single person in Gaza is hungry right now. A quarter of the population, so that’s a half a million people, are starving. And famine is imminent. We’ve never seen an entire population, 2.2 million people, made to go hungry this quickly and this completely. And people’s health is rapidly declining. What’s really concerning now is we’re starting to hear reports of children dying from dehydration, malnutrition and starvation. We’ve never seen children pushed into malnutrition so quickly. In the almost five months of war, there have been more children, more journalists, more medical personnel, more U.N. staff killed more than anywhere else in the world in any conflict.

In early October, when this war began, myself, amongst other independent U.N. human rights experts, immediately called for a warning of a risk of genocide, asking that there be an immediate ceasefire to prevent genocide. Unfortunately, what’s happened is the war has gotten worse. Israel’s attacks against civilians has continued and expanded. And I think it’s safe to say this is a genocide. And now we’re in the situation where we’re seeing starvation, and we’re seeing the denial of humanitarian aid and the destruction of the food system itself in Gaza.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Michael, if you could respond to the news from earlier today, authorities in Gaza saying Israeli forces committed a massacre in Gaza City, killing at least 104 Palestinians as they waited for food aid? Gaza’s Health Ministry says over 760 people were wounded, in what Hamas called an unprecedented war crime. According to eyewitnesses, Israeli forces opened fire on the crowd, who had gathered around humanitarian aid trucks. So, if you could respond to that and, you know, what that means in terms of the very little food aid getting in and people trying to get it and then this is what happens?

MICHAEL FAKHRI: Yes. This isn’t — so, unfortunately, this isn’t the first time people have been shot at by Israeli forces while trying to get access to aid. So, this most recent story has been the most tragic in terms of the number of dead and the number of wounded, but there have been repeated reports of Israeli forces shooting at Palestinian civilians who are waiting to receive aid. We’ve also heard reports of Israel bombarding convoys of aid trucks, even after those routes are coordinated with Israeli forces. So Israeli forces know where those convoys are, and, nevertheless, they are shooting at them.

Moreover, there’s been planned convoys that have been attempted to be sent to northern Gaza, and the last convoy that was sent that Israel allowed to reach northern Gaza was January 23rd. So, not only is Israel shooting at people getting aid, bombarding trucks en route, they’re denying convoys from reaching the north. And they’re making it very difficult for trucks to cross the borders, as we heard from Senator Merkley, whether it’s through Rafah crossing, the border with Egypt, or where most aid is coming through is the Kerem Shalom crossing, which is through Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Michael Fakhri, you’re really explaining a dire situation. I mean, looking on film at people in Gaza, the sunken eyes, how skinny their bodies are, we have reports — Al Jazeera was just doing a report from one of the hospitals in northern Gaza. It was Kamal Adwan Hospital, where they said infants are in the hospital. They no longer have parents. Usually at the hospital there’s a can of milk for every infant. Here, there isn’t a can for the entire ward. What does it mean to be the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food? What kind of power do you have? What kind of reports do you do?

MICHAEL FAKHRI: Yeah. I mean, at this point I’m running out of words to be able to describe the horror of what’s happening and how vile the actions have been by Israel against the Palestinian civilians. My job is to be — I’m an independent expert. I’m given authority by the Human Rights Council of the United Nations. This is a volunteer position. My job is to be the eyes, ears, and sometimes good conscience, for the U.N. system on all matters regarding hunger, malnutrition and famine, from a human rights perspective.

So, what I do is I present reports to the Human Rights Council and to the General Assembly. I decide what’s on the agenda when I present to them. I decide what is the right-to-food agenda when presenting to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly. So, my most recent report, when I go to the Human Rights Council next week, will be on the role of small-scale fishers. And what I will be doing now, between now and then the General Assembly in October, is my next report will be on starvation, with an emphasis on Gaza, because, unfortunately, we’re seeing a rise in conflict all over the world — conflict is the main source of hunger in the world — and also, for that report, to create a record of what’s going on in Gaza, because we’re seeing starvation, and we’re at the brink of famine.

And what’s the thing to remember about starvation and famine, it’s always, always human-made. It’s always the result of political choices. Never has there been a famine in modern history that was not because people with power made very specific choices and chose and decided to punish civilians. And what we’re seeing in Gaza is no different than that historical record.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Michael Fakhri, could you talk about the International Court of Justice ordering provisional measures? And what’s come of that? To what extent did Israel comply with those provisional measures?

MICHAEL FAKHRI: Yeah. On January 26th, the International Court of Justice stated in its provisional measures — and here I’m going to quote verbatim — that the state of “Israel must take immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance to address the adverse conditions of life faced by the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.” What the court also did is it considered the “catastrophic humanitarian situation” — these are their words — in the Gaza Strip is, quote, “at a serious risk of deteriorating.” That’s the International Court of Justice in late January.

What happened instead, Israel did not comply with the court. In fact, it tried to undermine the court’s authority. And what they did, in fact, is they’ve been restricting and denying the delivery of humanitarian aid to people in Gaza. And around that same time, in late January, Israel denied there was even a humanitarian crisis or starvation. And so, what we saw, instead of compliance with the International Court of Justice, is a reduction of humanitarian aid by 50%. And so, to put it in perspective, before the war began, approximately 500 trucks used to enter Gaza a day. Now, if we’re lucky, the average is about a hundred, but that’s an average amount.

The other thing to remember, even before all of this happened, is Israel had a lot of control over the entry of food into Gaza through a 17-year blockade. Because the question we have to ask: How was Israel able to make 2.2 million people go so hungry so quickly and completely? They were already keeping people on the brink of hunger through the 17-year blockade, making it very difficult for fishers to access the sea. And 50% of people in Gaza before the war were already food insecure. Eighty percent relied on humanitarian aid.

So, it’s so clear that not only is Israel not complying with the International Court of Justice, but I would add now that Israel is using humanitarian aid as a bargaining chip. So, not only is it breaching international law and the order of the International Court of Justice, it’s clear now — because what we saw on Tuesday — this is February 27th, this Tuesday — Israel and Hamas began negotiating for a potential 40-day truce. And it’s important to note what has Israel offered in the negotiations. They’ve offered humanitarian relief to Palestinians in Gaza. So, what Israel is offering for — they want concessions from Hamas. They’re offering things like a commitment to bring in 500 trucks per day of humanitarian aid. Israel is potentially committing to providing 200,000 tents and 60,000 caravans. And they’re offering to rehabilitate hospitals and bakeries and to allow for the necessary equipment to enter. This is the bare minimum. What they’re offering as a political negotiation is the basic bare minimum as a legal obligation in terms of international humanitarian law, as a legal obligation to comply with the International Court of Justice, as a legal obligation to meet human rights law. But again, this is the bare minimum. And they’ve been withholding this. They’ve been withholding this. And now that we see the negotiations for a truce, we see how Israel is using it as a bargaining chip to offer something, as if it’s a political choice and not a legal and, I would add, a moral obligation.

AMY GOODMAN: Is Israel committing a war crime, Michael Fakhri?

MICHAEL FAKHRI: Undoubtedly. Undoubtedly, they are committing war crimes. But let me add, a war crime — what’s interesting about war crimes is we can only hold individuals accountable for war crimes. This is something, I think, more existential. This is why we are saying — “we” being the dozens of independent U.N. human rights experts — are saying this is genocide. This is why the International Court of Justice is saying there’s a plausible case for genocide, from their perspective. What we mean by saying this is genocide means that Palestinian people, the people, are being targeted simply because they are Palestinian, simply because of who they are. This is what makes it genocide.

What’s important about framing it genocide is, of course, the remedy that is available. Genocide means the state of Israel itself is culpable, because, to go back to starvation, this is a systemic denial of humanitarian aid. This is a political choice to use the denial of humanitarian aid and starving of people as a political bargaining chip. This means that the entire state of Israel is culpable. But that also means that the remedy is not just throw this individual or that individual in jail maybe at some — a few years in the future. What the remedy is for genocide is fully recognizing the right of the Palestinian people for self-determination. This is why it’s important to understand this as a genocide.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s move from Gaza to the West Bank. Can you talk about the attacks on farmers on the West Bank? What is happening on the ground? Who is responsible, Michael Fakhri?

MICHAEL FAKHRI: Yeah. So, what’s also interesting is that when this particular war started in Gaza, immediately we saw an escalation of violence by Israeli settlers against Palestinians, and specifically against Palestinian farmers, and we saw increased violence by Israeli forces against Palestinians in the West Bank.

And so, what’s happened now is that the harvest season for olives has passed, and farmers were not able to harvest olives. This has several implications. So, there’s a record number of violence we’re seeing in the West Bank, more than ever in recent times. And attacking the olive trees and olive harvest is not just about olives, which are important for nutrition and for food and for making sure that the land remains fruitful in the future. The olive tree is central to Palestinian identity. It reflects and is a core aspect of the Palestinian people’s relationship to the land, to traditions, to their ancestors and to the future. And so, to attack and undermine and eliminate some olive trees is, again, attack against the Palestinian people at their core.

So, what we’re seeing — again, this is why we’re so concerned that it’s not — this is not just about the war in Gaza. This is escalated violence against Palestinian people. And you can track this when you follow food, when you follow the agriculture, when you look at fishers in Gaza, and if I might turn also to how the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, has been threatened by the lack of funding. So, because of unfounded claims by Israel, claiming that — at first they said 12, and now the number is down to nine employees, out of 30,000 employees, major donors to UNRWA have decided to end funding. This includes the United States, Germany, Canada, Japan, amongst many others — this punishes all Palestinian refugees across the board, not just in Gaza, but in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but also in Lebanon, in Syria and Jordan. So, time and time again, what we are seeing is this increased rate of violence against all Palestinian people simply because of who they are.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Michael Fakhri, let’s just end with the global hunger crisis, which the World Food Programme has noted is of unprecedented proportions. In just two years, the number of people facing or at risk of acute food insecurity increased from 135 million before the pandemic to 345 million now.

MICHAEL FAKHRI: Yes. So, before the pandemic, we were already seeing a rise in the rates of hunger and malnutrition. This started in 2015. When the pandemic started in 2020, it immediately triggered a hunger crisis in the whole world, so rich countries, poor countries alike. All of a sudden, there was a spike in hunger. Now, when the pandemic then formally ended, what happened is the hunger crisis actually got worse. The reason is because there were temporary measures and social programs that were put in place during the pandemic to deal with the health crisis. This is things like universal school meals for children, sometimes throughout the whole year, not just the academic year; direct cash payments to people; supporting local food markets, local farmers markets. These programs were put in place as temporary measures to deal with the pandemic and the food crisis in the pandemic.

AMY GOODMAN: We have 30 seconds.

MICHAEL FAKHRI: So, what needs to be done is to turn those temporary programs into permanent programs; otherwise, this global food crisis is only going to get worse.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Fakhri is the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food and a professor of law at the University of Oregon.

That does it for today’s program. Democracy Now! is produced with Mike Burke, Renée Feltz, Deena Guzder, Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Messiah Rhodes, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud and Hana Elias. Our executive director is Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley, Jon Randolph, Paul Powell, Mike Di Filippo, Miguel Nogueira, Hugh Gran, Denis Moynihan, David Prude, Dennis McCormick, Matt Ealy, Anna Ozbek, Emily Andersen, Buffy Saint Marie Hernandez. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, for Democracy Now!

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