What's In Blue

Posted Tue 27 Feb 2024

Briefing on Food Security Risks in Gaza

This afternoon (27 February), the Security Council will hold a briefing on food insecurity in Gaza under the “Protection of civilians in armed conflict” agenda item. Briefings are expected from OCHA Head in Geneva and Director of the Coordination Division Ramesh Rajasingham, Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Deputy Director-General Maurizio Martina, and World Food Programme (WFP) Deputy Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer Carl Skau. Guyana and Switzerland, the Council’s focal points on conflict and hunger, joined by Algeria and Slovenia, requested the meeting after OCHA sent Council members a white note, dated 22 February, on food insecurity in the Gaza Strip.

OCHA submitted the white note in accordance with resolution 2417 of 24 May 2018, which requested the Secretary-General to report swiftly when “the risk of conflict-induced famine and wide-spread food insecurity” occurs. For several months, UN agencies have raised alarms about food insecurity and the risk of famine in the Gaza Strip amid the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas. In December 2023, the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC)—used by relief agencies to measure hunger levels—published a special brief estimating that, between 24 November and 7 December 2023, over 90 percent of Gaza’s population, or about 2.08 million people, were experiencing “high levels of acute food insecurity”, which it classifies as crisis level conditions or worse. It projected that the entire population of 2.2 million would face such levels of acute food insecurity by February 2024 due to the armed conflict. This is the highest share of people facing high levels of acute food insecurity ever classified worldwide, according to the brief. Of this total, about half of the population (1.17 million people) was projected to face emergency levels (IPC Phase 4) and more than half a million people were anticipated to face catastrophic conditions (IPC Phase 5).

On 18 February, the Global Nutrition Cluster reported that approximately one in six children under two years of age in northern Gaza are experiencing wasting, the most life-threatening form of malnutrition. Across Gaza, an estimated 90 percent of children under the age of five are experiencing one or more diseases while being fed extremely poor diets.

Based on these projections, the OCHA white note says that at least 576,000 people in Gaza are “one step away from famine” and are “facing catastrophic levels of deprivation and starvation”. The white note describes the December 2023 projections as conservative figures and says that the risk of famine through May 2024 is increasing each day that the war continues and restrictions on humanitarian access persist or worsen. Referring to the Global Nutrition Cluster report, the white note observes that hunger and malnutrition in childhood causes irreparable physical and cognitive impairments and “will undermine the learning capacity of an entire generation”. A new IPC analysis is due to be released by mid-March, according to the note.

At today’s meeting, Rajasingham may describe ways that the war is driving the food crisis, which the white note attributes to “besiegement and hostilities that sharply escalated following the attack by Hamas on 7 October 2023”. The note further describes the direct effects of the conflict on food production; the indirect impact of the war on livelihoods, markets, and supply; and the serious challenges of delivering humanitarian supplies of food into and within Gaza. It notes that the Gaza Strip was already vulnerable to food insecurity because of its structural poverty and economic challenges from the prior 16 years of Israeli-imposed restrictions on the territory. Military operations since the outbreak of the war have caused the loss of arable land and destroyed agriculture infrastructure. In addition, the forcible displacement of people and repeated evacuation orders—67 percent of Gaza’s territory, which was previously home to 1.78 million people, has been placed under evacuation orders—has caused the abandonment or inaccessibility of cultivated land and other food production means, according to the white note.

Indirect causes include the crippling of Gaza’s commercial sector by the inability to produce food locally and extensive restrictions on commercial imports. This has led to depleted stockpiles, shortages of goods in marketplaces, and soaring prices. The disruption of livelihoods has compounded the hunger crisis. For example, fishing, which has been an important source of nutrition and income, has ceased completely because of the Israeli military’s prohibition on sea access for boats, according to the white note. With approximately half of the population crowded into a narrow area in southern Gaza, representing a five-fold increase in the area’s population before the war, markets in the south cannot meet people’s food requirements.

Despite the dependence on humanitarian supplies for essential items because of restrictions on the flow of private sector goods, the white note says that the humanitarian community continues to face significant obstacles to providing the necessary response required to prevent famine. “These include border crossing closures, serious movement restrictions, access denials, onerous vetting procedures, security risks, incidents by desperate civilians, a breakdown of law and order, and restrictions on communications and protective equipment”, according to the note. It adds that Israel has taken steps to facilitate aid, including by re-opening the crossing at Kerem Shalom in December 2023, but that the delivery of food and fuel required to distribute it have been limited.

Rajasingham might call for immediate action by the Security Council and other member states to prevent conflict-induced famine in Gaza. He may reiterate the white note’s recommendations, which call on the Council and other member states to use their influence, among other things, to ensure respect for international humanitarian law, to facilitate humanitarian access and scale up funding for multisectoral humanitarian assistance, and to facilitate a ceasefire.

Martina and Skau are also expected to speak about the scale and severity of conflict-induced food insecurity and the risk of famine based on the December 2023 IPC brief. They are also likely to refer to a recent joint FAO/WFP update prepared for Council members on “Monitoring food security in Palestine and the Sudan”. FAO and WFP officials briefed Council members on the report informally on 19 February. According to the report, “the conduct of hostilities in the Gaza strip – including Israeli air, land and sea bombardment, ground operations, and an economic and humanitarian blockade – has driven” over 90 percent of the population into crisis or worse levels of acute food insecurity by early December 2023.

Martina may speak about the war’s effects on food systems in Gaza from the destruction of agricultural infrastructure, Israel’s electricity blackout since 12 October, fuel and water shortages, and the decimation of the commercial sector. Skau may highlight the restrictions on humanitarian assistance. The FAO/WFP report says that restrictions, alongside ongoing hostilities, have “rendered impossible any meaningful humanitarian operations” and contribute to the risk of famine. The FAO/WFP report also flags that 600,000 people in the West Bank were estimated to be vulnerable to acute food insecurity, according to an OCHA flash appeal in November 2023.

Martina and Skau might observe that, under international law, parties who have ordered evacuation of civilians are responsible for adequately providing for displaced civilians, including by ensuring access to food, hygienic conditions, and shelter. However, the FAO/WFP joint report cites UN Secretary-General António Guterres and other UN and international agencies as saying that Israel has confined hundreds of thousands of people into southern Gaza without providing proper sanitation, and access to sufficient food, water, and health supplies.

Council members are likely to underscore that all parties must respect international humanitarian law. They may stress the need to urgently allow humanitarian assistance given the risk of famine. In this regard, they may highlight that a humanitarian ceasefire is crucial.

Members are expected to recall other obligations of belligerent parties that resolution 2417 reiterated. These include the resolution’s call on all parties to armed conflict to protect civilians by conducting hostilities according to the principles of humanity, distinction, and proportionality and their responsibility to protect objects indispensable for the survival of the civilian population. Members may also reference the prohibition, as recalled in resolution 2417, against the use of starvation as a method of warfare. Picking up on recommendations from the white note and the joint FAO/WFP update, Council members might call for the re-opening of all border crossings and the restoration of basic services into the Gaza Strip, including cross-border pipelines, the distribution of electricity, and the resumption of commercial goods into the territory. Council members are also likely to highlight the need to ensure funding for relief efforts. Some may mention that this should include funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Several donor countries suspended aid to UNRWA after Israel accused 12 of its staff members of having participated in the Hamas-led 7 October 2023 attack.

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