Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

High risk of famine across Gaza as hunger spreads, experts say

Fatma Hijazi holds the lifeless body of her 10-year-old child, Mustafa Hijazi, who died due to malnutrition and lack of medication in Deir al-Balah, Gaza. The photo is from June 14.
Ashraf Amra
Anadolu via Getty Images
Fatma Hijazi holds the lifeless body of her 10-year-old child, Mustafa Hijazi, who died due to malnutrition and lack of medication in Deir al-Balah, Gaza. The photo is from June 14.

Nearly all of Gaza’s population is struggling with food shortages and hunger, and half a million people are now facing starvation, a new report by independent experts says.

The report by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, or I.P.C., says in order to buy food, more than half of households in Gaza have had to exchange clothes and other goods for money. A third have resorted to picking up trash to sell. The report says many in Gaza go entire days and nights without eating.

The analysis was conducted by 35 experts, some from U.N. agencies and major aid groups. The I.P.C. was founded two decades ago to address famine in Somalia at the time.

The I.P.C.report says more than 340,000 Palestinians in Gaza are experiencing the most severe form of acute food insecurity and starvation, or what is classified as “catastrophe,” a category just short of famine. That number is expected to climb to 495,000 people over the coming three months, the study says. The report team used publicly available data as well as phone surveys to reach people in Gaza.

Israel declared a siege on Gaza after the Hamas-led attacks on Oct. 7 that killed 1,200 and took around 250 hostages, according to the government figures. Israeli airstrikes, shelling and violence in Gaza since then has killed more than 37,000 Palestinians, including thousands of children, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry. It has not kept a tally of the missing or additional deaths from preventable disease, malnutrition and other consequences of war.

Israel has since restricted everything that enters while stating it has no official policy limiting aid. The government insists it has facilitated the entry of aid by land, air and sea, but some human rights organizations and the top prosecutor for the International Criminal Court allege Israeli leaders are using starvation as a weapon of war against civilians in Gaza, allegations they deny.

A previous I.P.C report in March warned of looming famine in north Gaza unless more aid was allowed in. The Health Ministry in Gaza and doctors reported babies dying in hospitals without formula or breast milk from malnourished mothers in Gaza City.

Facing international pressure and demands by the Biden administration to get more aid into Gaza, Israel opened a land crossing for aid to enter the north in recent months. More aid overall reached the Gaza Strip in March and April.

This appears to have “temporarily alleviated” conditions in north Gaza, the I.P.C. study says, adding that the “available evidence does not indicate that famine is currently occurring.”

The study, however, says that due to worsening conditions since May in southern and central Gaza, there is a high risk of famine now across all of Gaza. Humanitarian aid has slowed into Gaza since Israel’s assault on the southern city of Rafah last month.

“The prolonged nature of the crisis means that this risk remains at least as high as at any time during the past few months,” according to the report from the I.P.C’s Famine Review Committeem,which added that “extreme human suffering is without a doubt currently ongoing in the Gaza Strip.”

Bombings and displacement hamper access to aid

In early May, Israeli tanks effectively shut the Gaza border in Rafah with Egypt, where aid and fuel had been entering. Fighting between the Israeli military and Hamas in Rafah also made it dangerous and difficult for aid organizations to reach their warehouses there or collect aid that entered Gaza at the southern crossing with Israel. Aid groups told NPR at the time they were rationing food supplies to distribute while tens of thousands more people needed hot meals.

“Renewed hostilities and repeated displacementcontinue to erode people’s ability to cope and access humanitarian assistance,” the I.P.C. report notes.

Aid groups react to the report

The World Food Programme, which distributes food in Gaza, says the I.P.C. report paints a stark picture of ongoing hunger in the Palestinian territory. The agency says in order to prevent famine, people need to be able to have access to the nutrients found in fresh food, clean water and functioning hospitals. Currently, people are largely living off canned food and bread.

Israel blames Hamas for siphoning off aid that enters, something the group denies. Israel has also blamed U.N. agencies and aid groups for not distributing effectively the humanitarian assistance that does enter.

Humanitarian workers have beenkilled in Israeli airstrikes and aid groups say their trucks are being looted amid widespread hunger and lawlessness. The Israeli military has targeted local clans and police securing the aid.

Mercy Corps, an aid organization working in Gaza, says Israel is allowing commercial trucks passage into the territory while the entry of humanitarian aid trucks people depend on is limited. They say aid is trickling in.

“People are enduring subhuman conditions, resorting to desperate measures like boiling weeds, eating animal feed, and exchanging clothes for money to stave off hunger and keep their children alive,” Mercy Corp vice president of global policy and advocacy, Kate Phillips-Barrasso said in a statement.

“The population cannot endure these hardships any longer. The toll of military action has been far too high,” she added.

It’s not just food that’s lacking in Gaza

Hospitals, bakeries, ambulances and telecommunications systems are all running on limited fuel due to unstable supplies entering Gaza.

The amount of medical aid crossing into Gaza is also insufficient, according to the World Health Organization.

A surgeon in Gaza City with Project Hope, Dr. Osama Hamed, said in a statement that he treated a 13-year-old boy last week with a vascular and ureteral injury, but the hospital lacked the sutures needed to operate. A staffer had to physically run to a nearby hospital to get the last box they had, he says.

Dr. Hamed says doctors are also seeing malnourished children daily in Gaza City. NPR has previously reported on malnourished children dying in central Gaza as the health-care system collapses.

“We see patients who are just skin and bones, as a sign of severe malnutrition,” he observed. “Patients have reported not eating any protein for several months, making it impossible for their bodies to recover from infections and injuries.”

Additionally, there isn’t enough drinking water in Gaza. “The other day, a young girl was admitted to the operating room and begged me for water,” he says.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Aya Batrawy
Aya Batrawy is an NPR International Correspondent. She leads NPR's Gulf bureau in Dubai.