There is “full-blown famine” in parts of Gaza, a UN aid official says

The head of the World Food Program said parts of Gaza are experiencing a “full-scale famine” that is spreading across the territory after nearly seven months of war, which has made the delivery of aid extremely difficult.

“There is a famine – a full-blown famine in the north, and it's spreading further south,” Cindy McCain, the program's director, said in excerpts released late Friday from an interview with “Meet The Press.”

Ms. McCain is the second prominent American to lead a U.S. government or U.N. aid effort to declare that there is famine in the northern Gaza Strip, although her comments do not constitute an official declaration, which is a complex bureaucratic process.

She did not explain why no official famine declaration was made. However, she said her assessment was based “on what we have seen and experienced on the ground.”

The hunger crisis is worst in the northern part of the strip, a largely lawless and gang-infested area where the Israeli military exercises little or no control. After Israel faced increasing global pressure in recent weeks to improve dire conditions there, more aid flowed to the devastated area.

COGAT, the Israeli defense agency that oversees Palestinian civil affairs, strongly rejected Ms. McCain's claim, saying Israel had recently increased its efforts to “flood the Gaza Strip with food, medical equipment and equipment for tents.” COGAT also listed several projects to improve conditions in Gaza, including opening the Israeli port of Ashdod to humanitarian aid deliveries.

About 100 trucks, mostly carrying food, now reach northern Gaza daily, a significant increase in supplies that COGAT said helped reduce the rising price of war. The Israeli Agency also said There was a “major surge” in new aid in April, with more than 6,000 aid trucks heading to Gaza, a 28 percent increase from the previous month.

At the diplomatic level, negotiations resumed in Cairo on Saturday with the aim of a ceasefire and an agreement to release Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners. A delegation of Hamas leaders traveled to the Egyptian capital, the Palestinian armed group said.

In recent days, Israel and the talks' facilitators – Egypt, Qatar and the United States – awaited Hamas's response to the latest ceasefire proposal, with Hamas signaling it was open to discussing the Israel-approved offer. On Friday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said U.S. officials would wait to see whether Hamas “can accept a 'yes' response to the ceasefire and release of hostages.”

“The only thing standing between the people of Gaza and a ceasefire is Hamas,” Mr. Blinken said at the McCain Institute in Arizona. “So let’s see what they’re going to do.”

Husam Badran, a senior Hamas official, said in a text message that the group's representatives came to Cairo “with great confidence” about the proposed agreement. “If there is no agreement, it is entirely because of Netanyahu,” he said, referring to Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister.

For weeks, Mr. Netanyahu has been announcing that Israeli forces will enter Rafah, where many of Hamas' remaining forces are believed to be stationed alongside some of its leaders. The plan has drawn widespread criticism, including from the Biden administration, fueled by concerns about the safety of more than a million displaced people in Gaza seeking refuge there.

As of Saturday, Israel had not sent a delegation to Cairo to begin indirect negotiations with Hamas officials, as Israeli officials had done in previous rounds of talks, according to two Israeli officials who spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with diplomatic protocol.

Even if Hamas announced in Cairo that it had accepted the proposed deal, a ceasefire was unlikely to be imminent, one of the Israeli officials said. Hamas's agreement would be followed by intensive negotiations to work out the finer points of a ceasefire, and such talks are likely to be lengthy and difficult, the official added.

Ms. McCain said a ceasefire could help ease the situation in Gaza.

“It’s horror,” she said on “Meet the Press.” “It's so hard to watch and it's so hard to hear. I really hope we can reach a ceasefire and start feeding these people, especially in the north, much more quickly.”

The first American official to say there was famine in Gaza during the conflict was Samantha Power, the director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, who made her comments in testimony to Congress last month.

Ms. McCain, the widow of Senator John McCain, was named American ambassador to the U.N. agencies for food and agriculture by President Biden in 2021 and took the helm of the World Food Program, a U.N. agency, last year.

An official famine declaration is made by a United Nations agency, the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, and the government of the country experiencing the famine. It is unclear which local authority in Gaza might have the authority to do this. Reports based on measured hunger, malnutrition and death rates over short periods of time are rare. But for aid agencies, a famine puts one crisis in the forefront over competing disasters and helps them raise money for the response.

Gaza is facing what experts call a severe man-made hunger crisis. Israel's bombing and restrictions on the territory have made the delivery of aid very difficult. The amount of aid coming into Gaza has increased recently, but aid groups say it is far from enough.

For the first three weeks of the war, Israel maintained a so-called “complete siege” of Gaza, with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant declaring that “no electricity, no food, no water, no fuel” would be allowed into the area. The Israeli military also destroyed Gaza's port, restricted fishing and bombed many of its farms.

Israel eventually eased the siege but began a careful inspection process that it says is necessary to ensure weapons and other supplies do not fall into Hamas hands. Aid groups and foreign diplomats said the inspections caused shortages and accused Israel of arbitrarily rejecting aid such as water filters, solar lamps and medical kits with scissors on flimsy reasons.

Volker Türk, the U.N. human rights chief, said in a statement last month that Israel's policy on aid in Gaza could amount to a war crime.

The use of starvation of civilians as a weapon is a serious violation of international humanitarian law and a war crime under the Rome Statute, the Treaty of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Israeli and foreign officials told The New York Times last week that they were concerned that the ICC was preparing to issue arrest warrants against senior Israeli officials – possibly over allegations that they prevented the delivery of aid to civilians in Gaza. (They also said they believed the court was considering arrest warrants for Hamas leaders that could be issued at the same time.)

Israel has previously vehemently denied restricting aid, accusing the United Nations of failing to distribute aid adequately and Hamas of looting supplies. U.S. and U.N. officials said there was no evidence of this, other than a shipment that Hamas seized earlier this week and is now being recovered.

However the problem is resolved, there is little doubt that conditions remain life-threatening for many people in Gaza, particularly children who suffer from illnesses that make them particularly vulnerable. According to local health authorities, as of April 17, at least 28 children under the age of 12 had died in hospitals in the Gaza Strip from malnutrition or similar causes, including a dozen babies under one month old. Officials believe many more deaths outside of hospitals have gone unaccounted for.

There have been some improvements in aid flows in recent weeks, and on Wednesday Israel reopened the Erez border crossing, allowing some supplies to flow directly into the northern Gaza Strip.

Fatma Edaama, a 36-year-old resident of Jabaliya in northern Gaza, said conditions in her neighborhood were still difficult. Many goods, such as meat, are unavailable or sold at exorbitant prices, she said.

But flour, canned goods and other items have become much more freely available and their cost has fallen sharply, Ms. Edaama said. “There used to be nothing, people ground up animal feed,” she said. “Now we have food.”

Still, foreign officials and aid groups say more is needed.

“This is real and important progress, but more needs to be done,” Blinken told reporters this week after visiting a relief camp in Jordan.

Anna Harden

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