How bad is the humanitarian crisis in Gaza? | Explained

Humanitarian aid parcels attached to parachutes are airdropped from a military aircraft over the Gaza Strip on March 21, 2024.

Humanitarian aid parcels attached to parachutes are airdropped from a military aircraft over the Gaza Strip on March 21, 2024.
| Photo Credit: AFP

The story so far: As Israel’s war on Gaza is reaching its sixth month, the Palestinian enclave has become the world’s “largest open-air graveyard”, as the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell put it. The U.N. has warned that a famine in the tiny strip of land with 2.3 million people is “imminent”. Despite growing international calls for a ceasefire, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vows that it would continue its military operation until “Hamas is dismantled”.

What is the situation in Gaza?

The war, which started after Hamas’s October 7, 2023 attacks in Israel in which at least 1,200 people were killed, has already destroyed much of Gaza and pushed most of the enclave’s population to the southern town of Rafah. According to Gaza’s health authorities, the over five months of Israeli attacks has killed at least 32,000 Palestinians, a vast majority of them women and children. More than 74,000 people have been injured. Gaza lacks enough hospitals, medical professionals, medicines, clean water and other healthcare facilities to treat the wounded. “We see patients trying to recover from life-saving surgeries and losses of limbs, or sick with cancer or diabetes, mothers who have just given birth, or newborn babies, all suffering from hunger and the diseases that stalk it,” the World Health Organization (WHO) said.

Most of the internally displaced people, roughly two million, are living in make-shift camps in the south. According to the UN, at the schools that shelter refugees, each toilet and shower are shared by hundreds of people. Diseases associated with poor sanitation such as hepatitis A, diarrhoea and other infections are rampant. As per the latest report from the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), the situation in Gaza is “catastrophic”. Before the war, there was enough food in Gaza to feed its population and malnutrition was rare. Now, “over a million people are expected to face catastrophic hunger unless significantly more food is allowed to enter Gaza,” WHO Director- General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

Why is there a severe hunger crisis?

The IPC report states that Gaza is now experiencing the most severe hunger crisis anywhere in the world. If before October 7, 0.8% of children under five were acutely malnourished, that figure went up to 12.4% to 16.5% in February. Gaza needs an immediate increase in supplies of food, water and other essential supplies, it said. Children are dying from the combined effects of malnutrition and disease. And the situation has gradually worsened over the past five months. If the percentage of Gaza’s population experiencing famine was roughly 30% in February, it went up to 50% by mid-March. In northern Gaza alone, at least 27 Palestinians, mostly children, have died due to malnutrition and dehydration, according to authorities. The north, where around 3,00,000 people are still living, has been mostly cut off from supplies as Israel has sealed off the border (except one checkpoint that was opened). Most of the aid that enters Gaza passes through two checkpoints in the south.

Experts usually look at three criteria to determine a famine — extreme lack of access to food, high levels of acute malnutrition and child deaths. Northern Gaza is already facing extreme lack of access to food and malnutrition levels and child deaths are steadily on the rise, which prompted the U.N. and several global powers to issue urgent calls for a ceasefire and more supplies for Gaza’s population.

What led Gaza to the brink?

Before October 7, around 600 trucks entered Gaza daily, of which roughly 150 carried food. Since then, Gaza’s economy has been destroyed by the war. According to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, half of croplands in the north, the breadbasket of the Strip, had been damaged in the war. Israel’s incessant bombing has also damaged Gaza city’s port, which practically destroyed the fishing sector, a major source of income for Gazans. Government institutions are not working and construction and other activities came to a grinding halt. This pushed almost all of the population to be dependent on aid, which means the demand for supplies went up many times. But the average number of trucks entering Gaza has come down from 600 in October to 200 today, according to the U.N., which accentuated the crisis that was already unfolding because of the destruction of Gaza’s economy. In February-end, Israel forces opened fire at a crowd that had gathered near an aid convoy, triggering a stampede and killing over 100 Palestinians.

To help alleviate the crisis, the U.S. and some European and Arab countries ramped up airdrops on Gaza. In one incident, a pallet crashed on to people waiting for food as its parachute failed to open, crushing at least five to death. As the crisis worsened with Israel’s refusal to let more aid into the enclave, World Central Kitchen, a charity, sent supplies via the sea. The U.S. is planning to build a pier on the coast of Gaza to send aid, but it will take months for this plan to be operational. The U.N. said last week that Israel’s refusal to let more aid in could be tantamount to using starvation as a “weapon of war”. “The situation of hunger, starvation and famine is a result of Israel’s extensive restrictions on the entry and distribution of humanitarian aid and commercial goods,” said U.N. Human Rights chief Volker Turk.

Is there a solution in the offing?

Various U.N. agencies have made it clear that to quickly improve the situation, the war should be brought to an end. Gaza is going through its worst humanitarian tragedy. Its economy has been destroyed; population battered; aid supplies have fallen; and even the limited quantities of aid that reach the enclave are not being distributed properly because of hurdles that were created by ongoing fighting. The U.N., which also lost over 100 employees, is understaffed and U.N. workers are also starving.

Israel allies in the West have acknowledged the seriousness of the situation. Antony Blinken, the U.S. Secretary of State, said last week that all of Gaza’s population “are experiencing severe levels of acute food insecurity”. But their solution to the crisis is to find alternative ways to ramp up supplies without forcing Israel to open the border, which is unlikely to alleviate the crisis. What Gaza needs is an immediate ceasefire. But after over five months of fighting, Israel has barely achieved its declared objectives such as freeing hostages or dismantling Hamas. Negotiations are ongoing under the mediation of Qatar, Egypt and the U.S., but Israel and Hamas have not reached an agreement. Israel appears to be ready for a short-term pause in fighting in return for the release of hostages, but Hamas seeks a lasting ceasefire and has also demanded the release of some high-profile Palestinian prisoners, including Marwan Barghouti, the Fatah leader who has been in Israeli jails for over two decades. As both sides reach no common ground, Israel, which continues to get weapons from the U.S., continues the war, for now.

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