A group of independent UN experts warn famine has spread throughout Gaza after more than nine months of war.

Palestinians line up for food during the ongoing Israeli air and ground offensive on the Gaza Strip in Rafah on January 9, 2024 [File: Hatem Ali/AP]

For months, Gaza has been teetering on the verge of famine.

But several United Nations (UN) human rights experts are now warning that there is “no doubt” famine already exists across the Strip.

“Israel’s intentional and targeted starvation campaign against the Palestinian people is a form of genocidal violence and has resulted in famine across all of Gaza,” 10 independent UN experts, including the special rapporteur on the right to food and the special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territory, said in a statement on Tuesday.

They accused Israel of fomenting conditions which have led to starvation in Gaza and have called for an end to Israel’s near-10-month bombardment of the besieged enclave.

So how can we tell if famine has set in in Gaza and can it be stopped?

How is ‘famine’ defined?

According to the UN-backed monitoring agency, Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), the term “famine” refers to the widespread and severe scarcity of food across a population.

A region determined to be suffering from famine is assigned a score of “IPC Phase 5”, the highest phase of the IPC’s Acute Food Insecurity scale.

Three conditions must exist to determine there is famine:

  • At least 20 percent of the population in the area faces extreme levels of hunger;
  • 30 percent of the children in the area are too thin for their height; and
  • The death rate has doubled from the average, surpassing two deaths per 10,000 daily for adults and four deaths per 10,000 daily for children.

In cases of famine, people usually have access to only one or two food groups and there is an extreme shortage of calories – well below 2,100 per person, per day, according to the World Food Programme (WFP).

So is there a famine in Gaza?

In its most recent evaluation, carried out last month, the IPC said Gaza remains at “high risk” of famine as the war continues and aid access is restricted, but stopped short of classifying conditions as a famine.

“While the whole territory is classified in Emergency (IPC Phase 4), over 495,000 people (22 percent of the population) are still facing catastrophic levels of acute food insecurity (IPC Phase 5),” the IPC stated. “In this phase, households experience an extreme lack of food, starvation, and exhaustion of coping capacities.”

The IPC itself does not declare a famine, but provides evidence for stakeholders, such as the UN or government authorities.

Despite the IPC’s assessment, the group of independent UN experts stated on Tuesday that the “deaths of more Palestinian children due to hunger and malnutrition leaves no doubt that famine has spread across the entire Gaza Strip”.

The group said the deaths of several children across the besieged enclave from malnutrition and dehydration indicated that health and social structures have been attacked and deeply weakened.

“When the first child dies from malnutrition and dehydration, it becomes irrefutable that famine has taken hold,” the experts said.

The group stated that earlier deaths of children from hunger had already “confirmed that famine had struck northern Gaza”. Now, with the additional deaths of several more children also due to hunger, “there is no doubt that famine has spread from northern Gaza into central and southern Gaza,” the 10 UN experts said.

In May, the head of the World Food Programme (WPF) also warned that northern Gaza was experiencing a “full-blown famine” which was “moving its way south”.

And in June, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) said famine is likely already under way in northern Gaza, in a report.

Palestinians in Jabalia struggle with food scarcity, basic necessities
Palestinians in Gaza gather to receive food cooked by a charity kitchen, as they struggle with food scarcity [Mahmoud Issa/Reuters]

What are conditions like in Gaza?

In March, Al Jazeera followed three families in Gaza for three days to document how they were coping with the scarcity of food.

“[We are eating] the same thing, canned food, cartoned cream cheese and fava beans. We heat them over the fire to eat. Sugar used to be available but now it has become expensive. We make tea with dukkah [a type of dried herb] or thyme … it makes do,” Umm Muhammed told Al Jazeera then.

On one typical day, Umm Muhammed prepared food for her family of eight – saj bread with cream cheese. That meal for the day was calculated to contain about 330 calories per person, significantly lower than the daily average recommended value of at least 1,000 calories for children and about 2,000 calories for adults.

Their story is typical of many families in the territory, where Gaza health authorities say at least 33 children have died of malnutrition since the war began on October 7, many of them in northern Gaza.

In lieu of available food, some Gaza residents have been reduced to drinking sewage water and eating animal feed, according to Hanan Balkhy, the World Health Organization (WHO)’s Eastern Mediterranean regional director.

Why has this happened?

The group of UN experts have blamed Israel for the onset of famine, accusing it of carrying out a “targeted starvation campaign”, largely by preventing the delivery of aid, as well as through its relentless bombardment of the Strip, which has killed at least 38,295 people – with many thousands more lost under rubble and presumed dead – and wounded 88,241.

Additionally in May, when International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor Karim Khan requested arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on charges of alleged war crimes, the specific crimes listed included the “starvation of civilians as a method of warfare”.

A declaration of famine can be used as evidence at both the ICC and the International Court of Justice (ICJ), where Israel faces allegations of genocide brought by South Africa.

A UN-backed independent commission has also accused Israel of inflicting hunger on Palestinians.

Palestinian mother Ghaneyma Joma sits next to her malnourished son Younis Joma as he receives treatment at Nasser hospital in Khan Younis
Ghaneyma Joma sits next to her malnourished son, Younis Joma, as he receives treatment at Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip [Mohammed Salem/Reuters]

Is there any way to stop famine in Gaza?

Aid agencies have been requesting immediate safe access to Gaza through its border crossings, so that food can be distributed to residents, since the start of the war.

At the end of March, the ICJ ordered Israel to act immediately to take all necessary steps to enable the “unhindered” provision of aid to Gaza to avert a famine.

Despite this, aid agencies continue to report difficulties and barriers to access. Earlier this week, Reuters reported that hundreds of trucks loaded with food and water were still stranded in Egypt – some having been there for nearly two months – awaiting permission to enter Gaza to deliver provisions.

Even if aid can get through, it may not be enough, however. Nour Shawaf, Oxfam’s MENA policy adviser, has previously told Al Jazeera that aid will not be enough to quell hunger and starvation – a ceasefire is necessary to allow humanitarian operations to scale up.

The IPC, in a report in March, recommended solutions such as the provision of ready-to-use formula for infants and micronutrient supplements for the most vulnerable, including young children, pregnant women and the elderly.

Doctors Without Borders, known by its French initials MSF, and other aid organisations have, in recent months, attempted to address soaring rates of malnutrition through the distribution of nutritional supplements.

The IPC report also advised restoring markets, including bakeries, as well as food production systems, such as fishing and horticulture.