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Volume 53 Number 33, December 21, 2023 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Stop Israel! Stop the Genocide!

Starvation Used as Weapon of War in Gaza

The Israeli government is using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare in the occupied Gaza Strip, which is a war crime, Human Rights Watch said on December 18. Israeli forces are deliberately blocking the delivery of water, food, and fuel, while wilfully impeding humanitarian assistance, apparently razing agricultural areas, and depriving the civilian population of objects indispensable to their survival.

Since Hamas-led fighters attacked Israel on October 7, 2023, high-ranking Israeli officials, including Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, and Energy Minister Israel Katz have made public statements expressing their aim to deprive civilians in Gaza of food, water and fuel - statements reflecting a policy being carried out by Israeli forces. Other Israeli officials have publicly stated that humanitarian aid to Gaza would be conditioned either on the release of hostages unlawfully held by Hamas or Hamas' destruction.

"For over two months, Israel has been depriving Gaza's population of food and water, a policy spurred on or endorsed by high-ranking Israeli officials and reflecting an intent to starve civilians as a method of warfare," said Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch. "World leaders should be speaking out against this abhorrent war crime, which has devastating effects on Gaza's population."

Human Rights Watch interviewed 11 displaced Palestinians in Gaza between November 24 and December 4. They described their profound hardships in securing basic necessities. "We had no food, no electricity, no internet, nothing at all," said one man who had left northern Gaza. "We don't know how we survived."

In southern Gaza, those interviewed described the scarcity of potable water, the lack of food leading to empty shops and lengthy lines, and exorbitant prices. "You are on a constant search for things needed to survive," said a father of two. The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) reported on December 6 that 9 out of 10 households in northern Gaza and 2 out of 3 households in southern Gaza had spent at least one full day and night without food.

Human Rights Watch continues by pointing out that international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, prohibits the starvation of civilians as a method of warfare. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court provides that intentionally starving civilians by "depriving them of objects indispensable to their survival, including wilfully impeding relief supplies" is a war crime. Criminal intent does not require the attacker's admission but can also be inferred from the totality of the circumstances of the military campaign.

In addition, Israel's continuing blockade of Gaza, as well as its more than 16-year closure, amounts to collective punishment of the civilian population, a war crime. As the occupying power in Gaza under the Fourth Geneva Convention, Israel has the duty to ensure that the civilian population gets food and medical supplies.

On November 17, the WFP warned of the "immediate possibility" of starvation, highlighting that supplies of food and water were practically non-existent. On December 3, it reported a "high risk of famine," indicating that Gaza's food system was on the brink of collapse. And on December 6, it declared that 48 percent of households in northern Gaza and 38 percent of displaced people in southern Gaza had experienced "severe levels of hunger".

On November 3, the Norwegian Refugee Council announced that Gaza was grappling with "catastrophic water, sanitation, and hygiene needs". Wastewater and desalination facilities were shut down in mid-October due to fuel and electricity shortages and have been largely inoperable since, according to the Palestinian Water Authority. Even before October 7, according to the UN, Gaza had virtually no potable water.

Prior to the current hostilities, Human Rights Watch points out, 1.2 million of Gaza's 2.2 million people were estimated to be facing acute food insecurity, and over 80 percent were reliant on humanitarian aid. Israel maintains overarching control over Gaza, including over the movement of people and goods, territorial waters, airspace, the infrastructure upon which Gaza relies, as well as the registry of the population. This leaves Gaza's population, which Israel has subjected to an unlawful closure for 16 years, almost entirely dependent on Israel for access to fuel, electricity, medicine, food, and other essential commodities.

After the imposition of a "total blockade" on Gaza on October 9, Israeli authorities resumed piping water to some parts of southern Gaza on October 15 and, as of October 21, allowed limited humanitarian aid to arrive through the Rafah crossing with Egypt. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on October 18 that Israel would not allow humanitarian assistance "in the form of food and medicines" into Gaza through its crossings "as long as our hostages are not returned".

The government continued to block the entry of fuel until November 15, despite warnings about the serious consequences of doing so, leading to the shutdown of bakeries, hospitals, sewage pumping stations, water desalination plants, and wells. These facilities, which have been left unusable, are indispensable to the civilian population's survival. Although limited amounts of fuel were subsequently allowed in, on December 4, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Lynn Hastings, called it "utterly insufficient". On December 6, Israel's war cabinet approved a "minimal" increase in fuel supplies to southern Gaza.

On December 1, immediately after the seven-day ceasefire, the Israeli military resumed bombing Gaza and expanded its ground offensive, stating that its military operations in the south would carry "no less strength" than in the north. While United States officials said that they urged Israel to allow fuel and humanitarian aid to enter Gaza at the same levels observed during the ceasefire, the Defence Ministry's co-ordinator of government activities in the territories said on December 1 that it halted all aid entry. Limited aid deliveries resumed on December 2, but still at grossly insufficient levels, according to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Alongside the crushing blockade, the Israeli military's extensive airstrikes in the strip have resulted in widespread damage or destruction to objects necessary for the survival of the civilian population.

UN experts said on November 16 that the significant damage "threatens to make the continuation of Palestinian life in Gaza impossible". Notably, Israeli forces' bombing of Gaza's last operational wheat mill on November 15 ensures that locally produced flour will be unavailable in Gaza for the foreseeable future, as highlighted by OCHA. Additionally, the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS) said that the decimation of road networks had made it more difficult for humanitarian organizations to deliver aid to those who need it.

"Bakeries and grain mills have been destroyed, agriculture, water and sanitation facilities," Scott Paul, a senior humanitarian policy adviser for Oxfam America, told the Associated Press on November 23.

Israel's military actions in Gaza have also had a devastating impact on Gaza's agricultural sector. The sustained bombardment, coupled with fuel and water shortages, alongside the displacement of more than 1.6 million people to southern Gaza, has made farming nearly impossible, according to Oxfam. In a report from November 28, OCHA said that livestock in the north are facing starvation due to the shortage of fodder and water, and that crops are increasingly abandoned and damaged due to lack of fuel to pump irrigation water. Existing problems, such as water scarcity and restricted access to farming land near the border fence, have compounded the difficulties faced by local farmers, many of whom are displaced. On November 28, the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics said that Gaza is suffering from at least a US$1.6 million daily loss in farm production.

On November 28, the Palestine Food Security Sector, led by the WFP and the Food and Agriculture Organization, reported that over a third of agricultural land in the north had been damaged in the hostilities. Satellite imagery reviewed by Human Rights Watch indicates that since the start of the Israeli military's ground offensive on October 27, agricultural land, including orchards, greenhouses, and farmland in northern Gaza, has been razed, apparently by Israeli forces.

The Israeli government should immediately cease using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare, Human Rights Watch said. It should abide by the prohibition on attacks on objects necessary for the survival of the civilian population and lift its blockade of the Gaza Strip. The government should restore water and electricity access, and allow desperately needed food, medical aid, and fuel into Gaza, including via its crossing at Kerem Shalom.

Concerned governments should call on Israel to end these abuses. The United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, and other countries should also suspend military assistance and arms sales to Israel as long as its forces continue to commit widespread and serious abuses amounting to war crimes against civilians with impunity.

"The Israeli government is compounding its collective punishment of Palestinian civilians and the blocking of humanitarian aid by its cruel use of starvation as a weapon of war," Shakir said. "The deepening humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza calls for an urgent and effective response from the international community."

International Standards and Evidence of Deliberate Action

Human Rights Watch states: Starvation of civilians as a method of warfare is prohibited under article 54(1) of the First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions (Protocol I) and article 14 of the Second Additional Protocol (Protocol II). Although Israel is not a party to Protocols I or II, the prohibition is recognised as reflective of customary international humanitarian law in both international and non-international armed conflicts. Parties to a conflict may not "provoke [starvation] deliberately" or deliberately cause "the population to suffer hunger, particularly by depriving it of its sources of food or of supplies".

Warring parties are also prohibited from attacking objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as food and medical supplies, agricultural areas, and drinking water installations. They are obligated to facilitate rapid and unimpeded humanitarian assistance to all civilians in need, and to not deliberately block humanitarian aid or restrict the freedom of movement of humanitarian relief personnel. In each of its four previous wars in Gaza since 2008, Israel maintained the flow of drinking water and electricity into Gaza and opened the Israeli crossings for humanitarian delivery.


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