A quarter of Gaza's population is one step from famine, UN says

2.3 million people in Gaza facing crisis levels of food insecurity or worse

AP02_26_2024_000004B Palestinians wait for humanitarian aid on a beachfront in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024 | AP

At least one quarter of Gaza's population  576,000 people  are one step away from famine and virtually the entire population desperately needs food resulting in aid trucks being shot at, looted and overwhelmed by hungry people, top UN officials said on Tuesday.

  The officials from the UN humanitarian office and the UN's food and agriculture organisations painted a dire picture of all 2.3 million people in Gaza facing crisis levels of food insecurity or worse, and civil order breaking down especially in the north where food and other humanitarian supplies are scarce.

And as grim as the picture is today, UN humanitarian coordinator Ramesh Ramasingham told the UN Security Council that there is every possibility for further deterioration.

He said that in addition to a quarter of Gaza's population close to famine, 1 in 6 children under the age of two in northern Gaza are suffering from acute malnutrition and wasting, where the body becomes emaciated.

Carl Skau, deputy executive director of the World Food Programme, said that is the worst level of child malnutrition anywhere in the world. And he warned that If nothing changes, a famine is imminent in northern Gaza -- the initial target of Israel's military offensive following Hamas' surprise attack in southern Israel on October 7 that killed some 1,200 people and led to about 250 being taken captive.

In the latest example of the breakdown of civil order, Skau said WFP resumed deliveries to northern Gaza for the first time in three weeks on February 18, and hoped to send 10 trucks a day for seven days to address immediate food needs and provide some reassurance to people that sufficient food would be arriving.

But on both February 18 and February 19, he said, WFP convoys faced delays at checkpoints, gunfire and other violence and the looting of food.

At their destination, they were overwhelmed by desperately hungry people, he said.

Skau said the breakdown in civil order, driven by sheer desperation, is preventing the safe distribution of aid  and we have a duty to protect our staff.

As a result, he said, WFP has suspended aid deliveries to the north until conditions are in place to ensure the security of its staff and the people receiving assistance.

Maurizio Martina, the Food and Agriculture Organisation's deputy director general, described the horrific state of farmland, greenhouses, bakeries and irrigation systems that are essential to produce, process and distribute food.

Since October 9  two days after the Hamas attacks  the government of Israel's reinforced blockade has included stopping or restricting food, electricity and fuel supplies, as well as commercial goods, he said.

This has affected the entire food supply chain in different ways, Martina said.

As examples, he said, severe restrictions on fuel shipments are crippling water supplies and the functioning of desalination plants, with the water supply at only 7 per cent of pre-October levels. 

Fuel shortages have also crippled the production and delivery of food and electricity, and seriously hampered the ability of bakeries to produce bread, he said.

Martina said the collapse of agricultural production in the north is already happening and in the most likely scenario will be complete by May. And as of February 15, over 46 per cent of all crop land in Gaza was assessed to be damaged, he said.

The FAO official presented more alarming figures from Israel's offensive -- a high number of animal shelters and sheep and dairy farms destroyed, over one-quarter of water wells destroyed, and 339 hectares of greenhouses destroyed. And he said the war has also heavily impacted the harvest of olives and citrus fruits, a key Palestinian money earner.

As for animals, Martina said, many livestock owners report substantial losses, all poultry have likely been slaughtered, and as many as 65 per cent of calves and 70 per cent of beef cattle are assumed to have died.

Israel's deputy UN ambassador Brett Miller told the council that while fighting Hamas it is doing all it can to care for civilians, and is working constantly to ensure the entry of humanitarian aid from numerous countries and UN agencies.

Since the October 7 attacks, he said, Israel has facilitated the delivery of 254,000 tons of humanitarian aid including 165,000 tons of food. There is absolutely no limit  and I repeat there is no limit  to the amount of humanitarian aid that can be sent to the civilian population of Gaza, he said.

Miller countered that 20 bakeries throughout Gaza are producing over 2 million pita breads a day.

He accused the UN of refusing to deliver aid to northern Gaza, and some UN officials of trying to shift the blame to Israel.

In recent days, Miller said, 508 trucks have been waiting to cross into Gaza with Israeli approval. So where is the UN and its aid agencies? How can it be that Israel is libelously held responsible for a situation that is clearly the UN's fault? he asked.

UN humanitarian coordinator Ramasingham, WFP's Skau and FAO's Martina all had a similar response: The first step to eliminating the looming threat of famine is a ceasefire so humanitarian workers can enter Gaza.

If nothing is done, we fear widespread famine in Gaza is almost inevitable, Ramasingham said, and the Palestinian death toll which has reached almost 30,000 will have many more victims. That figure from the Gaza Health Ministry doesn't distinguish between civilians and combatants, though the UN says the majority are women and children. 

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