UN expert: Israel is engineering famine in Gaza



UN Special Rapporteur Michael Fakhri says Israel’s intentional starvation of Gaza is unprecedented. “We’ve never seen a civilian population made to go hungry so completely and so quickly,” he tells Mondoweiss. “Never in modern history.”


Back in mid-December, two and a half months into Israel’s war on Gaza, a UN-affiliated committee of famine experts reported that over half a million Gazans faced catastrophic hunger, all 2.3 million were in crisis, and the situation was “deteriorating rapidly.”

On the eve of the Famine Review Committee’s follow-up assessment, forced starvation in Gaza is getting worse, fast.

In a March 5 statement, seven UN experts declared that “Israel has been intentionally starving” Gaza, and that “widespread famine” in the besieged, brutalized enclave is “imminent.”


Mondoweiss spoke with the first author of the statement, Michael Fakhri, Special UN Rapporteur on the right to food.   

“It’s just sort of unfolding at a speed we’ve never seen before,” Fakhri told Mondoweiss. “We’ve never seen children pushed into malnutrition so quickly. This was all preventable.”

“I have no doubt — and this is again in consultation with experts all over the world — we all have no doubt that the horror, the numbers, the degree of hunger, the degree of death from malnutrition will be higher than we’re able to measure right now.”

According to Gaza health officials and a “senior doctor,” cited on March 8 by the Associated Press, at least 20 people have died from dehydration and malnutrition at north Gaza’s Kamal Adwan and al-Shifa’ hospitals, and sixteen premature babies have succumbed to “malnutrition-related” disorders at Rafah’s Emirati Hospital.

On March 10, Al Jazeera reported 25 “known starvation deaths” in northern Gaza.

For famine to be declared in Gaza, three criteria need to be met, says Michael Fakhri. First, at least 20 percent of its population must face hunger. Second, one out of three children must be “acutely malnourished, or “wasting.” 

The third famine indicator — the hardest to measure in wars where journalists and aid specialists are denied access — two out of 10,000 inhabitants of a population must be dying every day due to starvation, malnutrition, or associated disease. 

“We’ve never seen a civilian population made to go hungry so completely and so quickly. Never in modern history.”

Michael Fakhri, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food

“It’s hard to determine the degree of how many people are actually dying from malnutrition and disease and hunger, versus bombs and bullets,” Michael Fakhri told Mondoweiss.

“Nevertheless, the fact that we’re seeing now… children…dying from malnutrition and dehydration, what that tells all of us, that tells us is that there probably already is a famine.” 

And famine is emerging in Gaza at an unprecedented pace, Fakhri says. “We’ve never seen a civilian population made to go hungry so completely and so quickly. Never in modern history. We’ve never seen children pushed into malnutrition so quickly. Never.”

And, says Fakhri, Israel’s use of food as a bargaining chip in its negotiations with Hamas confirms his and his colleagues’ March 5 claim that Israel has been “intentionally starving” Gazans. “That’s actually what President Biden said today [March 7 State of the Union address], that Israel should not use humanitarian aid as a bargaining chip,” says Fakhri.

Destroying the food system in Gaza

As Israeli negotiators play starvation poker, key cabinet ministers have been refusing to authorize increased aid shipments while blocking aid deliveries.

According to Sky News, Israel’s military occupation authority (COGAT) is prepared to boost aid into northern Gaza if the Israeli cabinet tells it to.

“That would be a decision that needs to be made by the government,” COGAT spokesman Shimon Freedman told Sky News on March 7. 

“If they were to make such a decision, then we would find a way to facilitate their decision. If the directive came from the government, then COGAT would find a way to fulfill that mission.”

Blocked food aid is just part of the problem, says Fakhri. Gaza’s food system is being systematically destroyed. 

“It’s not just denying humanitarian aid,” Fakhri told Mondoweiss. “It’s not just shooting at civilians trying to get humanitarian aid. It’s not just bombarding convoys of humanitarian trucks, even though those humanitarian trucks are coordinating with them. They’re destroying the food system…they’ve destroyed over 80% of the fishing fleets and fishing nets of small-scale fishers in Gaza. They’re destroying agricultural land, fields, greenhouses, orchards. They’re using white phosphorus, which poisons the land. So it makes it almost impossible to farm on that land in the near future.”

“It’s not just denying humanitarian aid. It’s not just shooting at civilians trying to get humanitarian aid; It’s not just bombarding convoys of humanitarian trucks, even though those humanitarian trucks are coordinating with them. They’re destroying the food system.”

Michael Fakhri, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food

All this after seventeen years of siege, featuring the openly declared policy of restricting Gazans’ caloric intake.

“The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger,” Dov Weisglass, an adviser to then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, famously declared in 2006.

Food as a weapon of war

In furtherance of its now well-established dietary restriction regime, on October 7, Israel was allowing about 500 aid trucks to enter Gaza each day. Today, that number has dropped to 100 or less.

“That’s not enough by any means,” Fakhri says. “What little aid is getting in, most of it is not going to the north…in that effort, again, to sort of push everyone from the north to the south, which I might add is a war crime to do that to civilians.”

“Israel is squeezing and strangling northern Gaza, as they said they were going to do,” Fakhri told Mondoweiss.

The February 29 “Flour Massacre” raised its strangulation policies up a notch, says Fakhri, but it was a natural next step.

Between October 8 and 15, Fakhri pointed out to Mondoweiss, Gaza’s three water lines — supplying 75% of Gaza’s entire water supply — were shut off.

On October 15, then Energy and Infrastructure Minister Israel Katz announced that water would be restored to central and southern Gaza, where Israel had urged Gazans to flee, but not to the north.

“The decision to restart water to the south of the Gaza Strip,” Katz said at the time, “was agreed upon between Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu and U.S. President [Joe] Biden, and will push the civilian population to the southern [part of the] Strip.” 

Crowding Palestinians into southern Gaza was part of a larger strategy, Foreign Minister (now Katz’ successor in the energy portfolio), Eli Cohen revealed on October 18.

“At the end of this war, not only will Hamas no longer be in Gaza, but the territory of Gaza will also decrease,” Cohen told Army Radio.  

Three months later, on January 22 — when aid strangulation and forcible displacement were at full throttle — the WHO gave up on trying to get food aid to the north. The next day, UNRWA halted its own deliveries. The World Food Program followed suit on February 20.

On February 13, Axios reported that Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich had blocked delivery of a U.S.-funded flour shipment — languishing in the port of Ashdod — because UNRWA was its recipient.

Two weeks later, on February 28, an aid convoy finally made it to northern Gaza, driving starving residents into a frenzy. In the early morning hours of the next day, the flour massacre took place. An estimated 114 Gazans died, and 750 were injured.

The people of Gaza City were “desperate and brutalized,” Michael Fakhri told Mondoweiss, and Israeli forces were primed to open fire on them. By that point, he says, Israeli soldiers had already fired on hungry Gazans on at least fourteen occasions.

“Let’s pretend we don’t know how many people died from bullet wounds [in the flour massacre],” Fakhri says, in response to Israeli claims that it didn’t fire on Gazans at all, and if it did, it did so in self-defense.

“Israeli soldiers are not allowed to shoot at civilians while they’re getting humanitarian aid. Full Stop. That’s it. The soldiers ‘felt scared.’ Whatever…If you shoot at civilians who are desperate, it’s going to lead to chaos, right? So Israeli forces shot at civilians getting humanitarian aid, which is a war crime.”

A serious war crime. Under Articles 55 and 59 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, occupying powers like Israel are obliged to ensure “the food and medical supplies of the population” and, if all or part of the population is “inadequately supplied,” to “agree to relief schemes,” and “facilitate them by all the means at its disposal.”

Geneva IV also requires the U.S. and other state parties to “guarantee” the protection of humanitarian aid.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has started airdropping food. In a tragic incident on March 8, a pallet of food failed to deploy its parachute, plowing into a crowd of people waiting for a food shipment. Five were reportedly killed, and several injured. 

“So, it’s American bombs and American aid dropping at the same time,” Michael Fakhri told Mondoweiss.*

“The degree of vile absurdity — I mean, that’s the only way I think I can describe it.”

Along with vile absurdities come vile food fit for animals — a predictable stage of famine. 

“They’re feeding their children that,” says Fakhri.

“That’s the part where it’s brutal. They’re forgoing meals; grown-up adults who have to choose who gets to eat in the family will prioritize the children…And then, all they have to offer their children is animal feed, which then actually leads to a lot of health issues.”

“Imagine being unable to feed your child, and your child looking at you, and there’s nothing you can do. And then they die.”

Surviving can be worse.

“When children between the ages of zero and five don’t receive adequate nutrients, that can lead to permanent physical and cognitive impairment in the future,” says Fakhri. “These kids in the future are going to require a significant amount of support to make sure that they can live a life of dignity. But then, think of the trauma…The number of children that have lost their entire family, that are left alone; the psychological scars of people that managed to survive are at a scale and to a degree…I mean, it’s as if Israel is trying to damn all the children in Gaza.”

Salvation for starving Gazan kids and their parents will not fall like manna from the sky, says Fakhri.  

“I wonder if [parachuted U.S. aid] is more a response to domestic pressure?” Fakhri asks. “I wonder if this is more performative, as a way of showing they’re doing something without actually doing anything?”

If Joe Biden’s aid drop campaign is performative — an attempt to boost his prospects in that other campaign — it’s very off the wall, Michael Fakhri told Mondoweiss.  

“It’s almost bizarre for the American administration and President Biden to try and send humanitarian aid in a form that you only use in your enemy’s territories, while then giving your ally a degree of freedom that they don’t give any other ally; just giving them a blank cheque…That’s what I’m still, as of today, I’m still processing what that even means.”

Famine Review Committee findings

As Michael Fakhri processes the contradictions of U.S. foreign policy, the Famine Review Committee, a body of the UN Food & Agricultural Organization, is processing starvation metrics. 

In a December 21 analysis, the FRC concluded that, during and shortly after Israel’s 7-day “humanitarian pause,” ending on December 1, 25 percent of northern Gazans, 15 percent of Gazans displaced to the south, and 10 percent of southern Gaza residents faced plausible catastrophic food conditions. 

Projecting forward to February 7, the FRC concluded that catastrophic hunger could rise to 30 percent in the north and 25 percent in the south for displaced Gazans. Its estimates were conservative, the FRC said, and the prevalence of catastrophic hunger would likely be higher.

Given the “expansion of high-intensity conflict” and “extremely high and growing level of displacement,” the FRC concluded that the entire population of Rafah, Khan Younis, and Deir al-Balah would likely experience “similar catastrophic conditions,” regardless of their residence status.

“Of the 150-180 food trucks typically entering daily pre-escalation,” the FRC reported, “only about 30 have entered the Gaza Strip on a daily basis since the end of the humanitarian pause on 30 November 2023. Even optimistic estimates of the potential kilocalories delivered in these shipments indicate that this level of food supply is far below the nutritional requirements of the whole population.” 

Malnourished and starving people get sick, the FRC pointed out in its December 21 assessment, due to be updated by the end of this month. 

“Combined with the overcrowding of [refugee] shelters and other locations, and an extremely limited supply of water, this situation is resulting in high risk of infectious disease outbreaks in a context in which the capacity of the health system to respond has been severely degraded,” the FRC said.

“The situation in Gaza is clearly catastrophic for all sectors and requires an extremely urgent political response.”

Chris Gunness is less diplomatic. UNRWA’s former chief spokesperson spoke with Mondoweiss.

“This is all sick. This is sick stuff,” said Gunness, responding to repeated Israeli claims that thousands of aid trucks have been entering Gaza, and that if they’re not delivering food aid to the starving Gazans who need it, it’s everyone else’s fault.

UNRWA funding should be restored immediately, says Gunness [Sweden and Canada have said they’ll do so. So has the European Union].

If not, “a humanitarian catastrophe will become a humanitarian apocalypse,” Gunness told Mondoweiss.

“Does Andrew Mitchell, the UK Development Minister, does David Cameron, the UK Foreign Secretary, does Anthony Blinken; do the Trudeau administration, do they really want to find themselves being judged by history to being complicit in genocide and starvation?” Gunness asked.

“Because, to be clear, [starvation] isn’t imminent. It is going on right now. Starvation is a slow-motion massacre. And that massacre, as we saw on the last day of February, that massacre has begun.”

“This is not like the Ethiopian famine in the mid-1980s,” says Gunness. “This is not a natural disaster. This is a political choice which our governments are taking, and people of conscience all around the world need to tell their governments, tell their elected representatives, that they do not want to be complicit in genocide and starvation. This madness, this slow-motion massacre of the people of Gaza, has to end.”

“This is not a natural disaster. This is a political choice which our governments are taking, and people of conscience all around the world need to tell their governments, tell their elected representatives, that they do not want to be complicit in genocide and starvation.”

Chris Gunness, UNRWA’s former chief spokesperson

Michael Fakhri and his fellow rights experts get specific.

“Humanitarian aid must not be used as a bargaining chip in negotiations,” they wrote in their March 5 statement.

“The provision of humanitarian aid is the minimum basic humanitarian obligation that Israel must provide unconditionally…We reiterate our earlier call…for an arms embargo and sanctions on Israel, as part of all States’ duty to ensure respect for human rights and stop violations of international humanitarian law by Israel.”