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Famine in northern Gaza is 'imminent,' warns the world's leading authority on hunger

Palestinians line up for a free meal in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Friday, Feb. 16, 2024.
Fatima Shbair
Palestinians line up for a free meal in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Friday, Feb. 16, 2024.

Updated March 19, 2024 at 11:15 AM ET

TEL AVIV, Israel — Famine is "imminent" in northern Gaza, where around 300,000 people still remain, and is at risk of happening any time between now and May, according to a new report by experts who are the world's leading authority on hunger.

The report from the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, or IPC, concluded that the entire population in the Gaza Strip, more than 2 million people, are already facing high levels of acute food insecurity. The report, released Monday, warns that famine conditions in northern Gaza may only be days or weeks away, while in central and southern Gaza, famine could occur by July.

The organization's system of evidence-based analysis of hunger was launched two decades ago to track famine in Somalia. It has classified a famine only twice since its founding in 2004 — first in Somalia in 2011 and in South Sudan in 2017.

The IPC determines famine "as an extreme deprivation of food" in which "Starvation, death, destitution and extremely critical levels of acute malnutrition are or will likely be evident." It says a famine occurs when 20% of households face "an extreme lack of food"; 30% of children are suffering from acute malnutrition; and two adults or four children per 10,000 people die each day from starvation or acute malnutrition.

There are already reports that children in Gaza are dying from a lack of food and water. Gaza's Ministry of Health has reported that at least 23 children in the northern part of the territory have died from malnutrition and dehydration in recent weeks.

"This is an entirely man-made disaster, and the report makes clear that it can be halted. Today's report is Exhibit A for the needs for an immediate humanitarian cease-fire," U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said Monday in response to the findings.

Israeli authorities have curtailed the amount of aid entering Gaza since Oct. 7, when Hamas-led militants stormed southern Israel and killed 1,200 people. Slowly, a few trucks of aid, airdropped packages and assistance delivered by seahave entered Gaza, but the need continues to far outweigh the relief actually reaching individuals in the territory.

Videos captured by media in recent weeks have shown people scrambling to get food on the rare occasions that aid trucks appear. In some cases, convoys have erupted into scenes of chaos. In February, more than 100 Palestinians were killed after crowds rushed an aid convoy in Gaza City. Israeli officials have acknowledged that soldiers fired on the crowd — which they said approached in a threatening way — but that others were killed or injured by trampling or being run over by trucks.

Aid agencies say the quickest way to avert hunger is for Israel to open more border crossings with Gaza and let more relief in. Israel says it is not putting any limitations on humanitarian aid, but only one Israeli crossing into Gaza is currently open, and Israeli inspections on aid trucks and the lack of security in Gaza have made deliveries increasingly difficult.

"It really is heartbreaking to see the levels of desperation, hunger, of hopelessness across the entirety of the Strip," Matthew Hollingworth, the Palestine director for the United Nations' World Food Programme,told NPR in a voice memo. "So many mothers who go to sleep listening to the cries of their children because they are still hungry. And many parents who are skipping meals day by day by day just to ensure their children have something every evening."

Meanwhile, Israeli authorities continue to blame Hamas for the problems inside Gaza.

During a raid on Al-Shifa Hospitalin Gaza on Monday, the Israeli military says it killed Fa'aq Mabhouh. Israeli authorities identified Mabhouh as Hamas' head of internal security. The Government Media Office in Gaza said Mabhouh was in charge of the coordination between tribes and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) to bring humanitarian aid into northern Gaza.

The IPC report found that food is in short supply and nearly everyone in Gaza is skipping meals. The organization also found that there has been a spike in the number of young children who are acutely malnourished: About one out of every three children under two years old in northern Gaza.

These children lack access to formula and their mothers, who are also struggling with hunger, can't produce enough breast milk.

The report also said areas of central and southern Gaza also risk being plunged into famine in the coming months if conditions do not improve or if they worsen — which is expected to happen if Israeli authorities go through with plans to launch an assault on Rafah governorate in southern Gaza, where roughly half of Gaza's population is now living.

To avert famine, Gaza needs about 300 trucks every single day of food, water and medicine, according to Arif Husain, the chief economist at the World Food Programme.

"If we have that on a very regular basis, meaning through all different border crossings, by road and also by sea, and it is sustained ... I think we can save not hundreds, but thousands of lives which are at risk right now," Husain told NPR.

But not nearly enough is getting into Gaza, he said. "Less than a third, at best."

The situation has pushed desperate Palestinians to take drastic measures to feed themselves and their families. Umm Mohammed al-Hamarna, a grandmother in Gaza City told NPR that she's foraging for leafy herbs to make soup, that she can't find baby formula for her grandson and prices for items that are available are too high.

A sack of flour in northern Gaza is around $400.

The situation is catastrophic, she said.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jaclyn Diaz is a reporter on Newshub.