Starvation as a Method of Warfare

At the International Court of Justice in The Hague today, South Africa has accused Israel of genocide. At the heart of its argument is the claim that Israel is destroying the people of Gaza through starvation. Article 2(c) of the Genocide Convention prohibits ‘deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part’. Israel says the charges are ‘baseless’.

The food system in Gaza has collapsed completely. The health system has collapsed. Basic infrastructure for clean water and sanitation has collapsed. According to the Famine Review Committee, the people of Gaza are facing a real prospect of famine: without immediate action, mass mortality from hunger or disease outbreaks is looming. The FRC delivers its assessments to a group of international relief agencies operating an early warning system known as the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC).

As I’ve written in the LRB in relation to the crisis in Tigray, the IPC identifies five phases of food (in)security: normal, stressed, crisis, emergency and catastrophe/famine. A famine is said to occur in a given area when ‘at least 20 per cent of the population is affected, with about one out of three children being acutely malnourished and two people dying per day for every 10,000 inhabitants due to outright starvation or to the interaction of malnutrition and disease.’ Households can be in phase 5 catastrophe even if a famine has not been declared for the wider area. According to the most recent FRC analysis of Gaza, dated 21 December 2023, ‘at least one in four households (more than half a million people) in the Gaza Strip are facing catastrophic acute food insecurity conditions.’

Another way of diagnosing and defining famine is by the number of excess deaths attributable to hunger and related causes. A ‘great’ famine is one in which 100,000 or more people die and a ‘major’ famine has a threshold of 10,000 excess deaths. This is useful for historical famines but not for food crises as they unfold.

Save the Children has warned that deaths in Gaza due to starvation and related causes may soon exceed the approximately 22,000 fatalities directly caused by the military onslaught. Families are often going one, two or three days without food. Infectious diseases, which are often the proximate cause of death among malnourished people, are spreading. Nearly 70 per cent of housing is estimated to have been destroyed or damaged. Few people have access to clean drinking water and fewer still to toilets. The risk of outbreaks of waterborne and other infectious diseases is extremely high.

If the catastrophe in Gaza continues on its current trajectory, the prediction of mass death from disease, hunger and exposure will come to pass. If humanitarian assistance is provided promptly and at scale, deaths from hunger and disease will stabilise and decline, but they will still take time to return to pre-crisis levels. Even with an immediate cessation of hostilities and delivery of emergency aid, along with efforts to restore water, sanitation and health services, mortality would remain elevated for weeks or months. Even this would constitute a ‘major’ famine, according to the definition of 10,000 or more deaths. A ‘great’ famine, with 100,000 or more excess deaths, may be in prospect if the current level of hostilities and destruction continues.

The war crime of starvation is defined in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as

intentionally using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare by depriving them of objects indispensable to their survival, including wilfully impeding relief supplies as provided for under the Geneva Conventions.

‘Objects indispensable to survival’ (OIS) include not only food but also water, medicine and shelter. There is no requirement that individuals perish of starvation for the crime to have been committed; it is sufficient for them to have been deprived of OIS. Human Rights Watch and others have concluded that Israel’s actions in Gaza constitute the war crime of starvation.

General Giora Eiland, a former head of the Israeli National Security Council, has written: ‘People might ask whether we want the people of Gaza to starve. We do not … The people should be told that they have two choices; to stay and to starve, or to leave.’ This is still a starvation crime.

Siege warfare is not in itself unlawful, but can become so if it disproportionately and systematically deprives civilians of OIS. The siege of Gaza from 2006 onwards is a controversial case: Israel controlled food, water, medical and electricity supplies almost completely; it was rigorous in deciding what commodities would be permitted into the Strip, while seeking not to fall foul of international humanitarian law. In the words of Dov Weisglass, an adviser to the then Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, ‘the idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.’

Over the years, the siege caused severe deprivation. ‘Prior to the current conflict,’ according to UN findings published last month,

64 per cent of households in Gaza Strip were food insecure or vulnerable to food insecurity, with 124,500 young children living in food poverty … Additionally, before the hostilities began on 7 October, UNRWA reported that over 90 per cent of the water in Gaza had been deemed unfit for human consumption.

This is the situation from which Gaza was rapidly reduced to catastrophe. The Israeli government has acted in full knowledge of existing humanitarian conditions and the effects of any actions it chose to take. So, too, has Hamas. but that is not relevant to determining Israel’s responsibility. On 9 October, the minister of defence, Yoav Gallant, said: ‘I have ordered a complete siege on the Gaza Strip. There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed.’ The tiny amounts of humanitarian assistance subsequently permitted to enter Gaza mitigate neither the force of this statement nor its impact.

In terms of the framework elaborated by David Marcus, a law professor at UCLA, this is a prima facie indication of a first-degree ‘famine crime’. Even if Gallant’s statement does not reflect state policy or military strategy, the fact that Israel’s military campaign has continued without any significant alteration of its methods after the humanitarian consequences have become clear means the operation in Gaza is also a second-degree famine crime. Either way, reducing Gaza to a situation in which famine is in prospect is not only a war crime under the Rome Statute, but a crime against humanity.

The IPC was developed in 2004. With reference to its procedures and criteria, famines were declared in Somalia in 2011 and South Sudan in 2017. In other cases, including Ethiopia, Nigeria and Yemen, the FRC has identified widespread IPC phase 4 (‘emergency’) conditions and warned of impending famine if immediate humanitarian action were not taken. Famine was not declared in Syria, where the IPC did not collect data. In the historical catalogue of famines and incidents of mass starvation, it is hard to find a close parallel with the situation in Gaza. Few cases combine such a comprehensive siege with such comprehensive destruction of OIS. The absolute numbers of people who die in Gaza will not match those of the calamitous 20th-century famines, because the afflicted population is smaller, yet the proportionate death toll may be comparable.

The rigour, scale and speed of the destruction of OIS and enforcement of the siege surpasses any other case of man-made famine in the last 75 years. The FRC warns that outright famine conditions may be widespread as early as next month. Comparisons can be made with the forced starvation of Biafra (1967-70), the siege of Sarajevo (1992-95), the ‘kneel or starve’ tactics used by the Assad government in Syria and the starvation crimes perpetrated by the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea in Tigray (2020-22).

In a comparative historical typology, Bridget Conley and I have identified nine purposes of starvation for the political and military actors that perpetrate it at scale, of which the first five are: extermination or genocide; control through weakening a population; gaining territorial control; flushing out a population; punishment. For the government of Israel, the starvation of Gaza undoubtedly conforms to the last four of these. If some of the statements from senior Israeli politicians are to be taken at face value, and if Israel continues its campaign without respite, after an unequivocal warning of famine, then the case for invoking extermination and genocide may become compelling. Calling responsible actors to account is a key to ending the crime of starvation and Israel is no exception.