Photo credit: World Health Organisation (WHO)
By Christian Henderson
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In its 117 days of war in the Gaza Strip, Israel has utilised an expansive arsenal of fatal armaments against the Palestinian people. None of these munitions, however, are as potentially deadly as the weapon of organised starvation. Famine is a component of the disaster that has been orchestrated by the Israeli state in Gaza, it is a part of the genocidal campaign against Palestinian life in the territory. All of the 2.2 million population of Gaza are now at risk of starvation. The UN estimates that a quarter of the population, 500,000 people, face the highest category of famine risk, a catastrophic level, close to imminent starvation and death. Of the global population at risk of this level of famine, eighty percent are in Gaza.
The provisional measures announced by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on January 27, confirmed South Africa’s concerns over Israel’s intent of genocide. This is manifestly demonstrated by Israel’s attack on food production in Gaza, which indicates that famine is an intended outcome. Food production and farming has been directly targeted. According to satellite imagery, it is estimated that at least 22% of Gaza agricultural land has been damaged. Greenhouses, warehouses and aid depots have also been bombed. Water wells and tanks have been obliterated. Previously an important source of livelihood and food, fishing has ceased in Gaza, many ports and fishing boats were destroyed in bombing raids. In cases where fishing was attempted over the last three months, Israeli forces attacked the fisherman causing deaths and injuries. Bread is a staple in Gaza but by the start of November many major bakeries in Gaza had been obliterated. Those bakeries that were not directly targeted in Israeli attacks were forced to close due to a shortage of flour, after the only flour mill was bombed in November. Since then no wheat has been processed in the territory.
Israel’s war on Gaza is enabled by the historical occupation and control that it exerts over the territory. The enclosure on the Mediterranean is a construct of Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinian people; a creation of the strategy of “maximum land, minimum Palestinians”. Since 1948, the settler colony and its exclusionary ideology of Zionism has cleared Palestinians from their land and resources through direct expulsions and strategies of containment. Gaza is one of the main concentrations of a population that Israel deems as surplus. Of its population of 2.2 million, around 1.7 million are categorised by the UN as refugees. One of the most densely populated spaces in the world, Gaza is a site of deprivation and poverty, and a historic pivot of Palestinian resistance against Israeli occupation and segregation.
One feature of this occupation has been a paralysing siege on the territory, imposed since 2007, which limited the import of a wide range of items, from food to pencils to engineering parts. As a result of this de-development, Gaza’s energy-water-food nexus has long been in a state of severe stress prior to this war. The strip was suffering from a long-standing electricity deficit, 25% of its electricity supply was provided by solar panels and generators, production that was independent from the grid, 25% was supplied by a diesel-based power station in Gaza. Fifty percent of the electricity supply was provided by the Israeli state, and paid for by the Palestinian Authority. Water access was also very poor. Gaza’s water supply has been under extreme pressure for some time, and more than 90% of the water was considered unfit for human consumption.
This fragile social metabolism has now been razed. The strategy of starvation is evident in the way in which Israel choked the entrance of basic commodities such as fuel and water into the territory. One of the first measures that Israel took against Gaza following Hamas’ October 7 attacks was the severance of these supplies. As a sign of the control that it continues to exert over Gaza, the Israeli government cut the supply of water, electricity and diesel into the territory on October 12. Israel’s disconnection cut half of Gaza’s electricity supply, and combined with the fall of diesel imports the electricity supply has mostly ended. Solar energy panels are the only sovereign form of energy that remains, and these have been targeted and damaged by Israel’s bombing campaign. Diesel deliveries to Gaza have fallen substantially, with Israel allowing sporadic imports, and some being supplied by the UN. In mid November it was estimated that the diesel supply was only 9% of the amount required for “life saving activities.” The severance of the supply from Israel also cut off 10% of water. Three desalination plants provide around 7 percent of water, but these are compromised by a shortage of power. The remainder is provided by 300 wells and boreholes to an aquifer, water that is extracted with pumps that rely on scarce diesel fuel.
In addition to direct attacks, Gaza’s food system is also in crisis as a result of the dire conditions that Palestinians now live in. The majority of homes, hospitals, schools, universities and businesses have been damaged or obliterated. Gaza City, the largest Palestinian city on earth, has been rendered uninhabitable. The continual bombing has forced the displacement of 1.7 million Palestinians from their homes, severing their attachment to the means of food production; their kitchens, smallholdings and roof gardens. Many of these people, some of whom have been made refugees for the second or third time in their lives, are now living in tents and shelters with no or minimal facilities to prepare food.
Employment and payment systems are wrecked after three months of war; banks have closed and ATMs often run out of cash. Many Palestinians preferred to keep money at home rather than use the banking system; in some cases this may have been lost or stolen when houses were destroyed in bomb attacks. Food prices have surged, and there are reports of profiteering. An apple is reported to cost the equivalent of around $8. The absence of clean water means that dry foods such as lentils or powdered milk are difficult or unsafe to prepare. The shortage of cooking gas means that many people are relying on firewood, which is rapidly decreasing in supply. Popular networks of social solidarity and charity have a long history in Gaza and it is one of the mechanisms used to cope with Israel’s occupation and war. Charity kitchens are now one of the only sources of hot food for many of the displaced, but they are also struggling with the increasing cost of fuel and commodities.
The amount of food needed to sustain the population must be seen in the context of the fact that the domestic food system has collapsed. Israel’s total control over the delivery of food into Gaza is a demonstration of why its grasp continues to be classified as an occupation by international law. Food deliveries use two crossings, Rafah and Kerem Shalom, both on the border with Egypt. Each food truck must undergo an inspection by Israeli officials, lest they identify any dual purpose item that they say can assist fighters in Gaza. According to reports this process can take hours and items are often arbitrarily rejected, meaning that entire trucks must be repacked. Due to this there are reports of long queues of trucks full of basic food commodities waiting to enter the territory. As aid officials are now pointing out, the population of Gaza is starving while food deliveries sit a few kilometres away on the other side of the wire.
Due to the targeting of all police and security forces in Gaza, when food aid is delivered there have been incidents of unrest. In some cases delivery points have been attacked by the Israeli military; in one case on January 11 two quadcopters, a drone equipped with an automatic machine gun, and a tank attacked a crowd of people waiting for the distribution of food. Human rights organisations reported that 50 people were killed in this attack alone.
Israel’s closest Western allies are shamelessly complicit in the use of famine as a political tool. The day after the ICJ announcement, a number of Western donor states announced that they would be suspending aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN agency responsible for providing social services and emergency aid for 5.9 million Palestinian refugees. In a move that many say was a vindictive response to the court’s measures, the US and close allies stopped financing the organisation, after Israel accused 12 of the 3000 UNRWA employees in Gaza of involvement in the October 7 attacks. Given that the US and other countries account for the majority of the UNRWA’s funding, and the agency is the main source of emergency aid and basic services for most of the territory’s population, this will intensify the humanitarian disaster in Gaza. In response to the move, Michael Fakhri, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food said that the withdrawal of funding meant that famine is now “imminent” and “inevitable”.
The weaponization of hunger is a reality of the present in Gaza. But it is also a matter of the past and future in Palestine. Engineered famine is a part of the current phase of an ongoing Nakba, the Arabic word for catastrophe that Palestinians use to describe the project of ethnic cleansing that has been inflicted on them since 1948. The continual assault on the Palestinians’ sovereign interrelation with land, resources and food is a weapon in this genocidal campaign. Consider, for example, the way in which Israel and its forces have continually attacked groves of Palestinian olive trees; since 1967 more than 800,000 have been destroyed. They are targeted for the way they embody the fabric of the Palestinians’ right to their homeland, both as a symbol of being and as a means of livelihood.
Looking beyond Gaza, it is apparent that the dual weapons of war and starvation is a favoured tool of imperialism and colonialism elsewhere in the region. The UN sanctions regime on Iraq, spearheaded by US influence on the Security Council, had a devastating effect on nutrition and health between 1990-2013. The ramifications were preceded by a devastating bombing campaign in 1990 and 1991. Yemen was also subject to a similar campaign as a result of the Saudi and UAE-led assault that started in 2015. The imposition of siege and aerial bombardment resulted in a state of famine for around half of the country’s 32 million population. Older cases of starvation by colonial authorities, in Algeria for example, also come to mind.
In this context, Palestine’s resistance against settler colonialism and its programme of ethnic cleansing, land grab and resource seizure, is not an exceptional case. Rather it can be read as the latest phase in a wider struggle of liberation and decolonisation in the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. As has been pointed out by other scholars, food sovereignty and agrarian politics has often been overlooked in the region, and the material base of rural struggles and peasant revolt has been erased, as has the historical lineage of contemporary struggle. If we return these matters to the foreground, however, we can see that events in Gaza are not static, rather they constitute a moment in decades of Palestinian resistance to Zionism; they are a historical juncture impelled by the contradictions of the struggle over land, population, resources and the means of life.