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Israel’s Use of Starvation as a Weapon of War Brings Gaza to the Brink of Famine

StoryFebruary 05, 2024
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Israel is accused of using starvation as a weapon of war in Gaza, as Israeli forces continue to severely restrict the delivery of humanitarian aid, food and medical supplies to millions inside the besieged territory. “It is not possible to create a famine by accident,” says Alex de Waal, an expert on the subject who serves as the executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University. Despite months of international warnings calling on Israel to open up aid channels, de Waal says famine in Gaza is “inevitable” as those warnings have been ignored and Israel’s war on Gaza is poised to continue.

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StoryApr 04, 2024Road to Famine: Israeli Law Prof. Neve Gordon on Israel’s History of Weaponizing Food Access in Gaza
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Nermeen Shaikh.

Israel is being accused of using starvation as a weapon of war in Gaza, as Israeli forces continue to severely restrict the delivery of humanitarian aid, food and medical supplies to millions inside the besieged territory after four months of indiscriminate bombardment and mass displacement. U.N. human rights experts warn Gaza’s 2.3 million population is facing severe levels of hunger, with the risk of famine increasing daily.

For more, we’re joined by Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University and author of Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine. His piece for The Guardian is headlined “Unless Israel changes course, it could be legally culpable for mass starvation.”

Alex de Waal, welcome to Democracy Now! Lay out the argument you have in your Guardian piece.

ALEX DE WAAL: So, my argument is essentially that while it may be possible to bomb a hospital by accident, it is not possible to create a famine by accident, and that for some months now, and particularly in mid-December, when the famine review committee, which is sort of the highest level of humanitarian assessment in the world, an independent, impartial, professional and extremely discrete body of experts, said that Gaza is heading towards famine, it is already in catastrophe — and these are very technical terms. And unless there is an end to active hostilities by the Israeli authorities and army and a full spectrum of relief operations, it is inevitable that sometime in the coming months — and they said beginning likely in early February — under the technical definitions, Gaza would be in famine.

So that is fair warning. And the actions undertaken by the government of Israel — and the war crime of starvation is defined thus: “using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare by depriving them of objects indispensable to their survival, including wilfully impeding relief supplies.” So the main element of the crime is destroying food, foodstuffs, hospitals, medical care, sanitation, shelter, etc. Unless that is all stopped, Gaza will be in famine.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Alex, if you could clarify? We just have a minute. You say that Palestinian children in Gaza will die in the thousands, even if the barriers to aid are lifted today. Explain.

ALEX DE WAAL: So, a humanitarian crisis is like a speeding freight train. Even if the driver puts on the brakes as hard as he possibly can, it will take many miles for that train to come to a stop. So, the levels of malnutrition that we are now seeing, the exposure to infectious disease through polluted water, through overcrowding and through lack of shelter, will mean that this humanitarian crisis continues. So, this is not something that can be stopped overnight.

And the fact that even after these warnings were issued, even after the International Court of Justice issued its provisional measures instructing Israel that it had to undertake these key actions, that this has continued, and the United States has not stopped it, makes them culpable for the crimes of starvation.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Alex de Waal, if you could speak — you’ve worked, obviously, on the question of famine and of mass starvation in many other contexts. If you could put what’s happening in Gaza in the broader context of what you’ve witnessed, from Sudan to Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Yemen?

ALEX DE WAAL: I think that the key element, key fact about what is happening in Gaza, has been happening for the last few months, is an exceptionally accelerated and concentrated and clearly deliberate, intentional reduction of a population to a state of outright starvation, of a nature that we have not seen in modern times. There is no parallel to this since World War II.

So, if we compare what is happening in Gaza to the other great famines in recent times, in Somalia, in Ethiopia, in Yemen, in the Nigerian Civil War in the 1960s, in China in the late 1950s, many of those were much bigger in terms of the numbers of people who died, because they impacted much larger populations. They were also much slower. They took many, many months or several years, usually, to unfold. They all have in common the fact that it is political or military decision that not only sets in motion starvation, but allows it to proceed without being halted. But this is an extraordinarily ruthless and concentrated example, as I said, without real parallel since World War II.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And could you explain why its intention doesn’t really come into this, why it doesn’t matter whether Israel is deliberately using starvation as a weapon of war, or if it’s a byproduct of its assault on Gaza? Why is that not relevant?

ALEX DE WAAL: So, let’s look at the case that was presented to the International Court of Justice by South Africa recently. And that used the Genocide Convention. And the key provision in the Genocide Convention is Article II (c), which is deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction, in whole or in part. Now, the court is going to take a long time to rule as to whether this is genocide or not, because the key element that it has to determine is genocidal intent. Now, there are a lot of senior government ministers in Israel who have made blatantly genocidal statements, but that does not, in itself, prove that there is genocidal intent in the way that the Israeli Defense Forces are conducting their operations.

But the actual facts on the ground are that conditions of life that will bring about the physical destruction of a significant part of the population of Gaza, those are there. Those are actually existing, regardless of what is the intention. And there are different types of intention. So, the war crime of starvation, which is — the focus is on depriving civilians of objects indispensable to survival, which isn’t just food. It’s anything that is indispensable to survival. That can be deliberately intended, in the sense that the criminal, the perpetrator, wants to starve, or obliquely intended, in that the perpetrator is conducting the actions for another reason, like crushing a military adversary, but it has that outcome.

Now, the key thing about starvation is that it doesn’t stop just because you stop doing your action. And it continues, when you are being — and if you continue doing it even though you were warned of the outcome, you are also responsible. And that is the key here. The key is that Israel is knowingly creating these conditions, because it has been warned, and warned repeatedly, and yet it has continued. And so that makes it culpable. And regardless of the intent, the crime is being committed. And those who are arming Israel, supporting Israel and undermining the relief capacity, which is particularly the UNRWA, are complicit in this.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, another point that you make in your Guardian piece — I’ll just read a short sentence. You write, “Never before Gaza have today’s humanitarian professionals seen such a high proportion of the population descend so rapidly towards catastrophe,” you say. And this as residents in the north, northern Gaza, are reportedly eating grass and drinking polluted water. UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, said today a food convoy expected to move into northern Gaza was targeted by Israeli forces. So, Alex, if you could talk about that, and, of course, this coming as there are — you’re warning of famine, these are the conditions on the ground, and donor countries are considering defunding UNRWA?

ALEX DE WAAL: So, if we go back to what the Famine Relief Committee came up with back in December — and this was based on the data that they gathered primarily during the humanitarian truce at the end of November. They have a five-point scale of food stress, going from phase one, which is normal; phase two, which is stressed; phase three, crisis; phase four, emergency — and in emergency, this is when children start to die in significant numbers; and phase five, which is catastrophe or famine, depending on exactly how the different metrics and indicators work out. And the current, as of early December, was 17% in catastrophe, phase five, 42% in emergency, phase four. The projected, which was for this week, early February, was 26% in catastrophe or famine, and 53% in emergency, so three-quarters of the population in emergency or catastrophe or famine. And that is quite extraordinary, given that right at the beginning of the crisis, the population was under stress, but then the rates of severe acute malnutrition were actually pretty low. The number of children who suffered from wasting because of deprivation of food was about 1% or thereabouts. So, just to reiterate, this train of catastrophe is moving extremely fast.

Now, there is a principle that was adopted by international humanitarians and by the United States government some 12, 13 years ago in Somalia, which is broadly called “no regrets” programming, which is that if you see a catastrophe unfolding, you must set aside the strict criteria in two regards. First of all, how closely and clearly do you actually know how bad it is? You should operate on a worst-case assumption. It’s better to waste some — quote, “waste” some resources by feeding people who may not actually be starving to death. And secondly, you also need to work with authorities, or you have to have a humanitarian carveout that means you can work alongside or with authorities that you don’t fully trust, knowing that some of your aid may be diverted. In the case of Somalia in 2011, it was the terrorist group al-Shabab, because unless you worked with them, there was going to be a famine in the areas they controlled. And so, it was agreed we will have a humanitarian carveout.

Now, this “no regrets” principle is being inverted today in Gaza, in that the slightest suspicion that some members of UNRWA, which is the only capable relief organization able to deliver assistance at scale, the slightest suspicion that some of them, small number, are associated with Hamas and its actions, is leading to a potential major cutoff in funding. And that makes international donors doubly complicit in what is going on.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: You also wrote in your piece — just to put what’s happening in a comparative frame, you wrote, quote, “Many wars are starvation crime scenes. In Sudan and South Sudan, it’s widespread looting by marauding militia. In Ethiopia’s Tigray [region], 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,” you write in your Guardian piece. So, if you could elaborate on that?

ALEX DE WAAL: So, what the Israeli Defense Forces are doing is not the full range of starvation crimes. For example, we don’t see them pillaging. We don’t see them stealing en masse. But what we do see is this relentless destruction of essential infrastructure. And this goes far beyond any proportionality. The laws of war are very clear, that if you are conducting a war in an area that is inhabited by civilians, that you have to have the — the damage to civilians, the deaths of civilians must be proportionate to your military objectives. And even the Israeli former Chief Justice Aharon Barak actually has said in a judgment, actually relating in this case to torture, that a law-abiding state or a democracy must — and I quote — “must sometimes fight with one hand tied behind its back,” because the fact that there are combatants embedded within a civilian population does not mean that that civilian population loses its civilian character, its protected character, according to the war. And what we are seeing in the case of Gaza is that the Israelis are essentially treating the entire population as a combatant population. That is de facto what we are seeing. And we did not see that with this intensity in any of these other cases.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Alex, if you could put this all in the context of ongoing U.S. support for Israel, and also U.K. support, but principally U.S. support? To the extent that Israel is guilty of creating the conditions for famine and already inducing mass starvation in Gaza, is the U.S. also complicit?

ALEX DE WAAL: I think morally, clearly, it’s complicit. And it could be legally liable in two ways. One, first of all, would be if the International Court of Justice does indeed find that Israel was — is responsible for genocide. And then the United States could be complicit in that crime in, certainly, the element of inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction. But even if the ICJ doesn’t find that, or it takes a long time to find that, the International Criminal Court prosecutor is also looking into war crimes and crimes against humanity, which have essentially the same provision, without the genocidal intent. And I think this would not be difficult to prove, that the same outcome is being — is occurring with just the intent to destroy these things, without the direct intent to cause starvation or to cause genocide, so starvation being the predictable outcome.

Now, if the prosecutor of the ICC were to begin to issue arrest warrants for Israeli officers or commanders or politicians, then the U.S. might find itself, by implication, complicit on those grounds, too. So the U.S. lawyers need to be very, very attentive to that as they give the administration its advice on whether it should continue in its current policy, which, as your correspondents have been saying, appears to be unconditional support for Israel.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We reported in our headlines that Belgium summoned the Israeli ambassador after Israel bombed Belgium’s development agency in northern Gaza. The bombing reportedly occurred on Wednesday after Belgium announced it would not pause funding for UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees. So, Alex de Waal, could you respond to this? And if a direct link is established, though I’m not sure how that would be, what does it mean that Israel is carrying out this kind of retaliation against a humanitarian agency?

ALEX DE WAAL: That would be just an extraordinary violation, not only of international humanitarian law, but of international criminal law. And if it could be proven, it would mean that those responsible could and should end up in court on trial for those crimes.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Alex de Waal, now we want to turn to — you know, you’ve done a lot of work in Sudan. So, if you could talk about — you recently wrote a piece for Chatham House on the situation now in Sudan. If you could elaborate on that?

ALEX DE WAAL: Well, let me actually take a little step back, because what we’re seeing in the Horn of Africa and in Yemen is something that we have not — in my almost 40-year career of studying food crises in these countries, we have not seen before, which is four major simultaneous food emergencies unfolding at the same time. So we have — in Sudan, we have about half the population. It’s a country of about 45 million people, and about half the population is in need of emergency assistance because of the war. In Ethiopia, we are seeing, in the northern part of the country, a rapid descent into famine conditions — are not yet there, but they are heading there — due to a combination of the effects of the war in northern Ethiopia, which unfolded over two years, came to an end a year ago, combined with drought. In Somalia, the continuing insecurity and conflict combined with severe drought, and now, in recent months, severe floods related to climate change. And in Yemen, the impact of the protracted war and siege, which just came to an end last year, which is now being exacerbated by the hostilities between the U.S. and the Houthis, and the designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization.

So we’re seeing four massive food crises unfolding in parallel, at a time when two other things are happening. One is that the price of of food aid has shot up because of the Black Sea crisis and also the Red Sea crisis. It’s just the cost of shipping, the cost of insurance, getting food to these countries has gone up. And also, the budget of the major agencies, such as the World Food Programme, has been massively squeezed. And that’s primarily because there is a standard allocation from the U.S., the major donor, but then what we — what the World Food Programme and what USAID need is a supplemental allocation, and the supplementary budget is held up in Congress.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Thank you so much, Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University and the author of Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine. His new piece for The Guardian is titled “Unless Israel changes course, it could be legally culpable for mass starvation.” To see Part 1 of our conversation with Alex de Waal, go to democracynow.org. This is Democracy Now! I’m Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks so much for joining us.

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Road to Famine: Israeli Law Prof. Neve Gordon on Israel’s History of Weaponizing Food Access in Gaza

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