Parts of Gaza in 'full-blown famine,' says UN humanitarian official

The World Food Program leader said parts of the Gaza Strip are experiencing a “full-blown famine” that is spreading across the territory after nearly seven months of war that have made aid delivery extremely difficult.

“There's a famine – a full-blown famine in the north, and it's moving 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 high-profile American leading a U.S. government or United Nations aid project to say there is famine in northern Gaza, although her remarks do not constitute an official statement, which is a process complex bureaucratic.

He did not explain why an official declaration of famine had not been made. But she said her assessment was “based on what we saw and experienced in the field.”

The food crisis is most severe in the northern part of the Strip, a largely lawless and gang-dominated area where the Israeli army exercises little or no control. In recent weeks, as Israel faced growing global pressure to improve the country's dire conditions, more aid has flowed into the devastated area.

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

According to COGAT, around 100 trucks, mostly loaded with food, now reach northern Gaza every day, a big increase in supplies that is helping to reduce soaring wartime prices. The Israeli agency also said April saw a “major wave” of new aid, with more than 6,000 relief trucks entering Gaza, a 28% increase on the previous month.

On the diplomatic front, negotiations aimed at reaching a ceasefire and an agreement for the release of Israeli and Palestinian hostages resumed in Cairo on Saturday. A delegation of Hamas leaders has traveled to the Egyptian capital, the Palestinian armed group said.

In recent days, Israel and the mediators in the talks – Egypt, Qatar and the United States – have awaited Hamas' response to the latest ceasefire proposal, with Hamas signaling it is willing to discuss the offer approved by Israel. On Friday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said American officials were waiting to see whether Hamas “can accept a 'yes' response to a ceasefire and hostage release.”

“The only thing standing between the people of Gaza and a ceasefire is Hamas,” Blinken said at the McCain Institute in Arizona. “So we look to see what they will do.”

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

For weeks, Netanyahu has promised that Israeli forces will invade Rafah, where many of Hamas' remaining military forces are believed to be deployed alongside some of its leaders. The plan has drawn widespread criticism, including from the Biden administration, fueled by concern for the safety of more than a million displaced Gazans taking refuge there.

On 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, following diplomatic protocol, spoke on condition of anonymity. .

Even if Hamas announced in Cairo that it had accepted the proposed deal, a truce was unlikely to be imminent, one of the Israeli officials said. Hamas' approval will be followed by intense negotiations to work out the finer details of the ceasefire, and such talks will likely be long and difficult, the official added.

Mrs. McCain said a ceasefire could help ease conditions in Gaza.

“It's horror,” he told “Meet the Press.” “It's so hard to watch, and it's also so hard to listen to. I really hope that we can get 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, director of the US Agency for International Development, who made her remarks in testimony to Congress last month.

Mrs. McCain, widow of Senator John McCain, was nominated by President Biden to be America's ambassador to the United Nations food and agriculture agencies in 2021 and became head of the World Food Programme, a United Nations agency, last year.

An official declaration of famine is made by a United Nations agency, the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, and the government of the country where the famine is occurring. It is unclear which local authority might have the power to do this in Gaza. Claims based on measured rates of hunger, malnutrition and death over short periods are rare. But for aid groups, a famine elevates a crisis above competing disasters and helps them raise funds to respond.

Gaza has been hit by what experts have called a serious man-made food crisis. Israeli bombings and restrictions on the territory have made the distribution of aid very difficult. The amount of aid entering Gaza has increased recently, but aid groups say it is far from adequate.

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

Israel eventually eased the siege but instituted a meticulous inspection process it says is necessary to ensure weapons and other supplies don't fall into Hamas hands. Aid groups and foreign diplomats have said the inspections create bottlenecks and have accused Israel of arbitrarily withholding aid, including water filters, solar lights and medical kits that contain scissors, for specious reasons.

Volker Türk, the United Nations human rights chief, said in a statement last month that Israel's policies regarding aid to Gaza could constitute a war crime.

Using civilian starvation as a weapon constitutes a serious violation of international humanitarian law and a war crime under the Rome Statute, International Criminal Court Treaty or ICC

Israeli and foreign officials told the New York Times last week that they are concerned that the International Criminal Court is preparing to issue arrest warrants against senior Israeli officials, potentially including charges of preventing the delivery of aid to civilians in Gaza. (They also said they believed the court was considering arrest warrants for Hamas leaders, which could be issued at the same time.)

Israel has previously vehemently denied placing limits on aid, accusing the United Nations of failing to distribute aid adequately and Hamas of looting supplies. US and UN officials have said there is no evidence of this, other than a shipment seized by Hamas earlier this week, which is now being recovered.

However the matter is resolved, there is no doubt that conditions are still life-threatening for many Gazans, particularly children suffering from illnesses that make them particularly vulnerable. As of April 17, according to local health authorities, at least 28 children under the age of 12 had died from malnutrition or related causes in Gaza hospitals, including a dozen infants less than one month old. Officials believe many other deaths outside hospitals went unrecorded.

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

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

But flour, canned goods and other items began to move much more freely and their cost dropped dramatically, Ms. Edaama said. “Before there was nothing, people ground animal feed,” she said. “Now we have food.”

However, foreign officials and aid agencies say more needs to be done.

“This is real and important progress, but there is still more to do,” Blinken told reporters this week after visiting a humanitarian warehouse in Jordan.

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