UN expert says Israel is deliberately starving Palestinians

Photo by Fatima Shbair/AP: Palestinian children line up for food in Rafah on 16 February

In this exclusive (The Guardian 27 February 2023) Nina Lakhani comments on the Israeli strategy to starve Palestinians and calls this an act of genocide in Gaza. The United Nations is speaking more loudly about this now and continuing its call for a ceasefire. She interviews Michael Fakhri, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food,

Israel is intentionally starving Palestinians and should be held accountable for war crimes – and genocide, according to the UN’s leading expert on the right to food.

Hunger and severe malnutrition are widespread in the Gaza Strip, where about 2.2 million Palestinians are facing severe shortages resulting from Israel destroying food supplies and severely restricting the flow of food, medicines, and other humanitarian supplies. Aid trucks and Palestinians waiting for humanitarian relief have come under Israeli fire.

“There is no reason to intentionally block the passage of humanitarian aid or intentionally obliterate small-scale fishing vessels, greenhouses and orchards in Gaza – other than to deny people access to food,” Michael Fakhri, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, told the Guardian.

“Intentionally depriving people of food is clearly a war crime. Israel has announced its intention to destroy the Palestinian people, in whole or in part, simply for being Palestinian. In my view as a UN human rights expert, this is now a situation of genocide. This means the state of Israel in its entirety is culpable and should be held accountable – not just individuals or this government or that person.”

Photo from Maxa Technologies/AFP/Getty: Aid trucks wait at the Rafah crossing on Egypt’s border with Gaza on 21 February

In every famine – whether its human-made or climate-driven – children and infants, pregnant women and the elderly are the most vulnerable to malnutrition, disease, and premature death.

Nutrition screenings at health centers and shelters in January found almost 16 percent of children under the age of two – the equivalent of one in six infants – were acutely malnourished or wasting in northern Gaza, where 300,000 people are trapped with virtually no food aid being allowed in by Israel. Of these, almost 3 percent are suffering from severe wasting, at high risk of medical complications or death without urgent help, according to a recent UN report. Reports have emerged of parents feeding their children animal feed in hope of keeping them alive.

In Rafah in the south, where Israel is currently focusing military attacks, 5 percent of children under two years were acutely malnourished. Wasting was not a major concern in Gaza before the conflict, when 0.8 percent of children under the age of five were acutely malnourished.

The screenings took place in January, and the situation is likely to be even worse today, warned Unicef – which has been denied access to the north despite daily requests since 1 January.

Photo by Abed Zagout/UNICEF: Ahmad waits his turn in the crowd to get a meal from a charitable hospice that distributes free food in Rafah on 19 December 2023

“The speed of malnourishment of young children is also astounding. The bombing and people being killed directly is brutal, but this starvation – and the wasting and stunting of children – is torturous and vile. It will have a long-term impact on the population physically, cognitively, and morally … All things indicate that this has been intentional,” said Fakhri, a law professor at the University of Oregon.

Intentionally starving civilians by “depriving them of objects indispensable to their survival, including willfully impeding relief supplies” is a war crime, according to the Rome statute of the international criminal court. Indispensable objects include food, water, and shelter – which Israel is systematically denying Palestinians. Starvation is a war crime under the Geneva conventions and the Rome statute. It was also recognized as a war crime and general violation of international law by the UN security council in 2018.

Across Gaza, 95 percent of households are restricting meals and portion size, with adults going without to feed small children. Yet the little food people have lacks essential nutrients needed for humans to grow and thrive physically and cognitively.

On average, the households surveyed had less than one litre of safe water per person per day. At least 90 percent of children under five are affected by one or more infectious disease.

“Hunger and disease are a deadly combination,” said Dr Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s emergencies programme.

The speed of the malnutrition crisis speaks to the fact that even before this war, half of Gazans were food insecure and almost 80 percent relied on humanitarian aid due to the 16-year blockade.

A 2019 study on small-scale agriculture in the Palestinian territories found that “the Israeli occupation is the most important single driver of food and nutrition insecurity.”

“It was already a very fragile situation due to Israel’s chokehold on what goes in and out of Gaza. So when the war started, Israel was very easily able to make everyone go hungry because they had most people on the brink,” said Fakhri.

Photo by Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters: A Palestinian girl has her arm measured to test for malnutrition at a medical tent in Rafah on 14 February. 

“We have never seen a civilian population made to go so hungry so quickly and so completely, that is the consensus among starvation experts. Israel is not just targeting civilians; it is trying to damn the future of the Palestinian people by harming their children.”

The catastrophic situation could still get worse. In late January, more than a dozen countries including the US, the UK, Germany, Australia, and Canada suspended funds to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).

Financial aid was suspended immediately after Israel made unsubstantiated allegations against 12 UNRWA employees having links to Hamas – on the same day the international court of justice (ICJ) made its interim ruling ordering Israel to take all possible measures to prevent genocidal acts, and to take immediate steps to ensure the provision of basic services and humanitarian aid to civilians in Gaza.

UNRWA, which has about 30,000 employees, provides emergency food, healthcare, education, and other basic services for almost 6 million Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the occupied West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and East Jerusalem.

On Friday, UNWRA said it could no longer function in north Gaza, where food was last delivered five weeks ago.

“Ending funding almost instantaneously based on unsubstantiated claims against a small number of people has no other purpose other than collective punishment of all Palestinians in multiple countries. The countries that withdrew this lifeline are undoubtedly complicit in the starvation of Palestinians,” Fakhri said.

Photo by Abed Zagout/Anadolu/Getty: A Palestinian man and a child light up a fire for cooking in Rafah

On Monday, Amnesty International said Israel had failed to take “even the bare minimum steps” to comply with the ICJ ruling to ensure sufficient life-saving goods and services reaching a population at risk of genocide and on the brink of famine.

The Israeli government argues that its war is against Hamas and a justified response to the unprecedented cross-border attack on 7 October, which left more than 1,100 people dead. Since then, almost 30,000 Gazans have been killed by Israeli attacks, according to the Palestinian health ministry. A further 70,000 have been injured, and thousands more are missing and presumed dead. An estimated 134 Israelis are still being held hostage by Hamas.

Israel has for years targeted Palestinian food and water sources.

Photo from Reuters: A Palestinian woman feeds her newborn dates amid a lack of milk, at a school where they sheltered in Nuseirat

Israel has made foraging for native wild herbs like za’atar (thyme), ‘akkoub (gundelia) and miramiyyeh (sage) a criminal offense punishable by fines and up to three years’ imprisonment. Palestinians fishers have for years been shot at, arrested and sabotaged by Israeli forces – in violation of the 1995 Oslo accords permitting them fishing access up to 20 nautical miles.

And the current violence – against Palestinians and their food and water supplies – extends to the occupied West Bank.

After the 7 October attack, 24,000 acres of olives were left unharvested in the West Bank after Israel largely prevented farmers from accessing their orchards, resulting in the loss of 1,200 metric tons or $10m of olive oil – a key Palestinian export and powerful symbol for Palestinian identity.

Photo by Abed Zagout/Anadolu/Getty: A child drinks water from a dirty plastic container in Rafah on 19 February

“The destruction of olive trees isn’t just an issue of food or commerce, it’s at the core of what it means to be Palestinian and their relationship to the land, just as the sea is central to what it means to be from Gaza,” Fakhri said.

The Israeli government did not respond to requests for comment about the statements from Fakhri, the UN rights expert.

Fakhri added: “Israel will claim there are exceptions to war crimes. But there is no exception to genocide and there’s no argument as to why Israel is destroying civilian infrastructure, the food system, humanitarian workers, and allowing this degree of malnutrition and hunger … The charge of genocide holds a whole state accountable and the remedy of genocide is the issue of self-determination of the Palestinian people.

“The path forward must not just be ending the war but actually peace.”

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