UN human rights chief: Israel’s ‘extensive restrictions’ on Gaza aid may be war crime

Israel rejects notion it could be using starvation as a ‘weapon of war,’ saying this absolves Hamas of responsibility; asserts it is doing everything it can to increase aid

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk listens to delegates after delivering his report of the situation in the West Bank and Gaza during the 55th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on February 29, 2024. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP)
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk listens to delegates after delivering his report of the situation in the West Bank and Gaza during the 55th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on February 29, 2024. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP)

United Nations human rights chief Volker Turk warned Tuesday that Israel’s “extensive restrictions” on aid entering war-ravaged Gaza, coupled with the ongoing war against the Hamas terrorist organization, could amount to using starvation as a “weapon of war,” which would be a “war crime.”

In a statement rejected by Israel, Turk blamed Israel for rampant hunger and looming famine in Gaza, saying that “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.”

It was also linked to the “displacement of most of the population, as well as the destruction of crucial civilian infrastructure,” he said.

“The extent of Israel’s continued restrictions on the entry of aid into Gaza, together with the manner in which it continues to conduct hostilities, may amount to the use of starvation as a method of war, which is a war crime.”

His spokesman Jeremy Laurence told reporters in Geneva that the final determination of whether “starvation is being used as a weapon of war” would be determined by a court.

The comments follow a UN-backed report on Monday saying famine is likely by May without an end to fighting in the more than five-month war between Israel and Hamas in the Palestinian enclave of 2.3 million people.

The devastating war — started on October 7 when the Hamas terror group launched a shock assault on Israel’s southern communities — has, according to the assessment, left roughly half of Gazans, or around 1.1 million people, experiencing “catastrophic” hunger.

Hamas slaughtered some 1,200 people in southern Israel, most of them civilians, amid acts of wholesale brutality. An additional 253 people were seized as hostages, of whom 130 remain in Gaza, including at least 33 who are no longer alive.

In response to the massacre, Israel launched an aerial offensive and ground campaign, vowing to eradicate the terror group that has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007 and to release the hostages.

The Hamas-run health ministry has said that more than 31,800 people have been killed since October 7, figures that cannot be independently verified and do not differentiate between civilians and combatants, of whom Israel says it has killed more than 13,000. An additional 1,000 terror operatives were said to have been killed inside Israel on and immediately after October 7.

A worker sorts flour bags during the distribution of humanitarian aid in Gaza City on March 17, 2024, amid the ongoing war between Israel and the terror group Hamas. (AFP)

Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN humanitarian agency OCHA, pointed to the difficulty of clearly determining if the strict criteria have been met to declare a famine.

“The famine thresholds may already be the case in northern Gaza,” he told reporters, highlighting reports that for weeks people had already been reduced to eating bird seed, animal fodder, wild grass and weeds.

“There is literally nothing left,” he said.

Looking ahead, he warned that without more aid, Gaza could soon be looking at “more than 200 people dying from starvation per day.”

Israel, which checks all trucks entering Gaza, has been under increasing pressure from aid agencies to allow more aid into the territory. It has blamed the UN for not delivering supplies fast enough after they are cleared, and for leading to a general fall-off in deliveries. It also accuses Hamas of stealing aid deliveries for itself, depriving civilians of resources.

Humanitarian aid operations have intensified in recent weeks, including airdrops and efforts for a maritime humanitarian corridor from Cyprus, but the UN and other aid agencies warn that these are insufficient to meet the desperate needs in Gaza, particularly in the hard-to-reach north.

‘Clock is ticking’

Already, health workers are seeing “newborn babies simply dying because of their too-low birthweight” and “children that are at the… brink of death through starvation,” World Health Organization spokeswoman Margaret Harris said.

She noted that malnutrition had been basically “nonexistent” in Gaza before the war.

The crisis was “entirely manmade,” she claimed, denouncing the lack of safe access to bring in the aid needed to meet the towering needs.

Turk said that “the clock is ticking.”

“Everyone, especially those with influence, must insist that Israel acts to facilitate the unimpeded entry and distribution of needed humanitarian assistance and commercial goods to end starvation and avert all risk of famine,” he said.

A man hands out bags of flour during the distribution of humanitarian aid in Gaza City on March 17, 2024. (AFP)

He also demanded “an immediate ceasefire, as well as the unconditional release of Israeli hostages still held in Gaza.”

Israel’s diplomatic mission in Geneva rejected Turk’s statement, insisting that he was seeking “once again to blame Israel for the situation and completely absolve the responsibility of the UN and Hamas.”

“Despite the rockets, the holding of our hostages, the acts of pure evil on October 7, Israel is committed to facilitating humanitarian aid into Gaza,” it said, insisting that “Israel is at war with Hamas, not the Palestinian people.”

The country, it said, was “doing everything it can to flood Gaza with aid, including by land, air and sea.”

It added, “The UN must also step up.”

The US State Department also rejected Turk’s assessment that Israeli restrictions on aid may be a war crime.

“That is not something that we’ve observed or witnessed,” US State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel said during a press briefing.

“We’re seeing aid and food… enter Gaza,” Patel said, while clarifying the US believes the amount of aid was still insufficient, not entering fast enough and not getting to all the places it needs to go.

Patel reiterated the US was “deeply concerned” by a UN-backed report Monday saying famine was likely by May without an end to the Israel-Hamas war.

Trucks carrying humanitarian aid for the Gaza Strip pass through the inspection area at the Kerem Shalom Crossing in southern Israel, March 14, 2024. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

The IDF’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories pushed back on Tuesday against the warnings for a potential famine in Gaza, with a spokesman telling The Times of Israel that “we don’t believe that there is starvation in the Gaza Strip.”

“That’s not to say that there aren’t difficulties in some areas, but that we are doing everything we can to facilitate large amounts of aid,” the spokesman continued.

He also said that Israel has placed “absolutely no limit on the amount of aid” that goes into Gaza.

The real problem, said the spokesman, was distribution.

Israel was trying to diversify the ways aid gets into Gaza, opening up a sea corridor from Cyprus, allowing more aid drops, and sending two convoys through a crossing near Beeri, close to the northern Gaza Strip.

Israel is able to check 44 trucks an hour at Kerem Shalom and Nitzana, said the COGAT spokesman. “That is a lot more than what can be picked up on the other side.”

“We can inspect as fast as possible,” he said, adding that when necessary “we’re more than willing to create improvements.”

“We’ve added manpower and scanning equipment and working hours. So at the moment, Kerem Shalom can inspect more than can be distributed.”

The spokesman added that there is an IDF team that meets daily with the UN and other aid organizations to understand what is needed on the ground in Gaza.

“Based on that understanding, we prioritize what humanitarian aid needs to go in. But if there is a certain organization or country that would like to see additional aid go in, then we’re more than happy to facilitate it.”

Lazar Berman and Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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