HIS name was Abu Salah Shikir. It was back in August 2005 when I first met the former geography teacher at his home in the city of Khan Yunis in Gaza.  However, he insisted that the house in which we sat talking was not what he would call his real home.

That, he told me, had been bulldozed by the Israelis in March of the previous year and he and his family had since been rehoused by the Palestinian Authority (PA). 

Shikir was just one of countless Gazans I spoke with at that pivotal moment back in August 2005, when Israel began its disengagement from Gaza, dismantling settlements, moving settlers out and ­redeploying its army along the border, ­effectively shutting Gazans in.

Even back then, going on two decades ago now, Shikir – a quiet, softly spoken man – echoed the views of many Gazans I met at the time and during subsequent visits who feared for Gaza’s future.

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“In Gaza, there is no gold, there is no oil, only sand and sadness. People eat their sadness daily,” I recall him saying wistfully that afternoon as we chatted over endless cups of tea.  I couldn’t help thinking of those words again this weekend as Gazans again “eat only sadness” and famine looms after ­almost six months of an Israeli onslaught the ferocity of which few back then could ever have imagined would engulf Gaza to the extent it does now.

The facts are stark.

The people of Gaza – who have been shelled, bombed, their homes blown to oblivion and now displaced – face famine on a “catastrophic” scale, say the UN and humanitarian organisations. No natural disaster has occurred here as is often the cause of such hunger elsewhere during global crises.  Gazans, just like the people of Sudan, are on the receiving end of an entirely man-made famine, because belligerent parties – in Gaza’s case Israel – are ­keeping food from people as part of its arsenal. In other words, starvation is being used as a weapon of war in Israel’s military ­response to the attack by Hamas on ­October 7 last year.

The implications of this are ­profound – not only in terms of the suffering and deaths likely to occur, but for the ­reasons outlined by former senior US ­government official and columnist  David Rothkopf, writing in the Israeli ­daily newspaper Haaretz last week.

“Should Israel continue the fighting and thus impede aid operations, should it ­continue to restrict those operations in any way, it will be seen as the primary ­author of one of the greatest ­humanitarian crises we have seen in modern memory,” Rothkopf warned. 

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Those words by any standards have a terrible resonance, but perhaps especially so about a nation born out of the horrors of the Holocaust of which Rothkopf’s own family have direct experience and loss.  That crisis that Rothkopf speaks of is – according to the US State Department – ­already under way, and famine is present in at least some areas of northern Gaza with others in danger of falling into starvation.

“While we can say with confidence that famine is a significant risk in the south and centre but not present, in the north, it is both a risk and quite possibly is present in at least some areas,” a State Department official told Reuters. 

That bleak assessment is supported by the detailed UN-backed report compiled by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), a global authority on food security.  Its experts have projected that ­famine is “imminent” for the 300,000 ­Palestinian civilians in northern Gaza, where ­conditions will develop by the end of May. 

And by mid-July, as many as 1.1 ­million people in Gaza could face what the IPC characterised as the worst stage of ­hunger – an “extreme lack of food”, and ­severe levels of starvation, destitution and acute malnutrition.

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Since its formation back in 2004 by UN agencies and international humanitarian groups, the IPC has classified a famine only twice. The first was in 2011, in parts of Somalia, and the second in 2017, in parts of South Sudan. 

According to data produced for those countries, relatively small proportions of the population met the group’s criteria for famine conditions. In Gaza, however, the residents of the critically threatened north make up more than 13% of the population.

Any declaration of famine is based on a strict criteria scale that ranks a country’s food shortages or insecurity against five “phases” of severity, ranging from ­minimal to catastrophic.

All of Gaza’s 2.2m people are in at least the third, or crisis, level of food ­insecurity, meaning that they are not ­eating enough and are ­malnourished.

Nearly 40% are in the fourth, or ­emergency, phase, facing extreme food shortages and bearing an increased risk of hunger-related death.

And 30% are in the most severe stage, indicating they have ­almost no food and are facing ­critical ­levels of starvation and death.

For a famine to be officially declared, IPC guidelines state that three things need to happen in a specific geographical area. First, at least 20% of households face an extreme lack of food. Second, at least 30% of children suffer acute malnutrition. Third, two adults or four children per 10,000 people die each day “due to outright starvation or to the interaction of malnutrition and disease”.

Such specific assessment criteria are vital in that they not only help enable the ­correct humanitarian response, but also cuts through often misleading claims made by governments or regimes who deny ­culpability in the creation of such a crisis.

The National:

This weekend there was no shortage of criticism of Israel’s denials of using starvation as a weapon of war or blocking aid. Equally, the US government has been accused of hypocrisy given that despite the State Department’s warnings of impending famine, reports in The Washington Post say US president Joe Biden’s administration has just authorised another transfer of billions of dollars in new bombs and fighter jets to Israel. 

As senior humanitarian officials upped their calls for Israel to allow unfettered access for aid to Gaza, COGAT – the ­Israeli defence ministry body responsible for ­Palestinian civil affairs – has hit back at claims that restrictions are increasing starvation in the coastal enclave.  It accused UN agencies of being ­ unable to handle the quantity of aid ­arriving daily.

“At any given moment, there are ­hundreds of trucks held up at the Gazan side of the Kerem Shalom crossing after having completely been processed by the authorities in Israel,” the COGAT reply said.

But aid workers and diplomats say a pattern has emerged of Israeli ­obstruction, where COGAT has imposed arbitrary and contradictory criteria on relief ­entering Gaza.  The European Union’s top diplomat Josep Borrell went further, accusing ­Israel of using “starvation as a weapon of war”, saying the famine was “not a natural ­disaster” but caused by Israel “­preventing ­humanitarian support ­entering into Gaza.”

Hundreds of trucks were waiting at the border and being prevented entry into Gaza by Israel, he said.

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“The support is there waiting. Trucks are stopped, people are dying,” Borrell said. Aid delivery by sea and air was only necessary because the “natural” way of delivering aid by land was “artificially closed” by Israel, he added.

The World Food Programme estimates that at least 300 trucks are needed to ­enter Gaza every day and distribute food to meet only the basic hunger needs. The UN agency has only managed to take nine convoys into northern Gaza since the start of the year, it said in a statement.  The wrangling while Gazans die is not helped by what some observers have ­described as “narrative-makers … ­doing the unthinkable and denying hunger in Gaza.” 

Last week, Dahlia Scheindlin – a ­political scientist and fellow of the think tank Century International based in Tel Aviv – wrote a searing assessment of the role played by such narrative-makers.  “These efforts range from clownish to methodical,” Scheindlin commented in Haaretz.

“Yoseph Haddad, Israel’s favourite Arab hasbarista, has proclaimed that there is no famine – so it must be true,” wrote Scheindlin, using a play on the Hebrew word “Hasbara” which roughly means “explaining” and referring to the Arab-Israeli activist seen by many as a staunch defender of Israel.

Scheindlin then turned her ire on ­Israeli YouTuber, Tal Louria, who posted a selfie video saying there cannot be any famine in Gaza, because he “hasn’t seen pictures of people starving like in Africa”.

Of the more “methodical” culprits who seem to specialise in “strategies of ­deflection”, Scheindlin then singled out senior Israeli official, Gilad Erdan, the country’s ambassador to the United ­Nations. 

It was Erdan, Scheindlin noted, that claimed “if there is even a problem of lack of food in Gaza – and we claim otherwise – only the Hamas terrorists are to blame, who loot humanitarian aid that Israel ­allows to enter with no limitations”.

But if criticism has been pointed at such Israeli “narrative-makers”, then it has also this weekend been directed at the Biden administration, following The Washington Post’s report that the US ­government has authorised the transfer of billions of dollars in bombs and fighter jets to Israel.

The latest arms package include more than 1800 MK84 2000-pound bombs and 500 MK82 500-pound bombs, according to Pentagon and State ­Department ­officials familiar with the matter who spoke with the Post on condition of ­anonymity because recent authorisations have not been disclosed publicly.

So much for the apparent rifts between the Biden administration and Israel, many critics were quick to point out – among them senators Bernie Sanders of ­Vermont and Jeff Merkley of Oregon.

While Sanders in a social media post called the move “obscene”, he added, “the US cannot beg (Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu) to stop bombing civilians one day and the next send him thousands more 2000lb. bombs that can level entire city blocks”.

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Merkley echoed Sanders’s criticism, ­calling the arms transfer “wrong on every level”.

The administration “can’t ­credibly push to increase humanitarian access to Gaza” while providing weapons used to ­“indiscriminately kill innocent ­Palestinians”, he argued.

Meanwhile, other observers have said that a famine in Gaza could bring a ­genocide ruling against Israel. In January, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) – also known as the World Court – ordered Israel to refrain from any acts that could fall under the Genocide Convention and to ensure its troops commit no genocidal acts against Palestinians in Gaza. 

Writing in Time magazine last week, David J Simon, director of the Genocide Studies Programme at Yale University, detailed how it was the humanitarian ­dimension about which the ICJ expressed the most concern. 

With that concern now ­deepening as famine looms, the time might have come to look again about ­whether in legal terms, ­Israel’s ­actions fall under ­categories that would deem an act of genocide, says ­Simon. While back in January the court ­appeared to conclude that ­Israel’s ­campaign was not inherently ­genocidal, that definition might be due further examination under the Genocide Convention.

“It is worth asking, given the court’s concerns, whether the humanitarian ­crisis constitutes genocide. In legal terms, whether the situation can be deemed an act (or policy) of genocide depends on the parsing of the complete wording of Clause 2(C) – whether the conditions were ‘­deliberately inflicted’, whether they ­reflect a calculation ‘to bring about … the destruction’ of Gaza’s Palestinian ­population, and, if so, whether an ‘intent to destroy’ at least part of that ­population can be found to underlie that ­calculation,” Simon argues in the article.

This weekend, as aid trucks piled up at the border, Gazans once again watched as supplies dropped by parachute into the devastated territory. But parachute drops and the creation of coastal piers for seaborne aid to arrive are stop-gaps and far from the ultimate answer humanitarians argue. 

With no full ground access and the ­ability of Gaza’s population to ­counter food insecurity waning and coping ­mechanisms running out, hunger has reached life-threatening levels on a mass scale.  Once again, Gazans are having to “eat their sadness daily,” as Abu Salah Shikir told me all those years ago back in 2005.