USA Today: Palestinians in Gaza Face Mass Starvation. Only an Immediate Ceasefire will Save Them.

This piece was originally published by USA Today.

President Joe Biden recently said that in Gaza, “there are a lot of innocent people who are starving.” In fact, letting people in Gaza suffer and die from hunger and preventable disease is a political choice. It is not too late to change this story if urgent actions are taken to achieve a cease-fire and the release of the hostages, and to allow a sufficient flow of aid into Gaza.

Only an immediate stop to the fighting, a massive increase in humanitarian assistance and the return of basic services can keep the number of deaths caused by hunger and disease from eclipsing the already shocking numbers of those killed in the war to date.

Four months after Israel launched its bombing campaign and tightened the siege of Gaza following Hamas’ brutal Oct. 7 attacks, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians now risk dying from hunger and preventable diseases. A further offensive on Rafah will surely accelerate the deepening hunger crisis given the more than 1 million people sheltering there with nowhere safe left to go. It also will dramatically diminish the already weak flows of aid.

When we can reach our humanitarian colleagues in Gaza, they report the horrors of daily life: Parents going without food for days, telling hungry children there’s nothing to eat, standing in line for full days to get a little wheat. “If the situation continues,” one colleague writes, “we will see one of the biggest disasters we have faced as humanitarians. It will be due to hunger, disease, and the very polluted and dangerous environment in Gaza, resulting from the residuals of the thousands of bombs, the white phosphorus, the raw sewage floating all over the place, and the unsafe water being consumed as people don’t have other choices.”

Four months of constant bombardment has killed almost 28,500 people, destroyed much of Gaza’s housing stock and eviscerated its critical service infrastructure.

The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, the global authority that monitors food insecurity and acute malnutrition, reports that the entire population of Gaza – more than 2 million people – is experiencing hunger at crisis levels or worse: “There is a risk of Famine and it is increasing each day that the current situation of intense hostilities and restricted humanitarian access persists or worsens. … This is the highest share of people facing high levels of acute food insecurity that the IPC initiative has ever classified for any given area or country.”

The suspension of funding for the United Nations’ Palestinian refugee agency by the U.S. government and other nations, because of allegations that agency employees were involved in Hamas’ attack, exacerbates the nightmares and the risks. UNRWA provides lifesaving services to more than three-quarters of the people of Gaza and the logistical infrastructure on which most other aid depends.

Conditions in Gaza have deteriorated rapidly

The speed of the deterioration in Gaza is unprecedented in recent history. Nearly 3 in 4 Palestinians in Gaza are drinking from contaminated water sources. Communicable diseases are on the rise. A reported 1.7 million people are displaced. Many are sheltering in UNRWA facilities.

Almost half the population of Gaza is now in Rafah, facing more bombings and a threatened invasion with nowhere else to go. Gaza is a small territory dependent for food on commercial imports. Its limited agricultural production has been completely derailed; nearly all bakeries have closed due to lack of fuel and damage from airstrikes. Israel’s siege has closed almost all border crossings and effectively halted commercial food imports. Even with two border crossings open, the amount of food being allowed in is, in the words of a colleague, “a drop of water to meet an ocean of need.” 

We know all too well, from experience, what happens next: Prolonged hunger becomes acute malnutrition because aid is blocked, vulnerable people lack adequate shelter and clean water, basic health care and nutrition services are unavailable and large-scale death follows.

Most people who die in a famine are actually killed by disease rather than outright starvation – their bodies so weakened that routine infections become death sentences. Gaza no longer has medical services to mitigate these risks, with only 14 of 36 hospitals even partially functional. Miscarriages are skyrocketing. Mothers who are too malnourished to breastfeed are using contaminated water to prepare baby formula. Once people facing such acute hunger approach death, specialized medical treatment is required to bring them – especially children – back to life. Half of Gaza’s population is under 18. The alarm bells are blaring. The time to act is now.

With safe and sustained access and renewed support for UNRWA, organizations like ours and our local Palestinian partners could quickly increase humanitarian aid. Add in a restoration of basic services like electricity and water, and a renewed flow of commercial commodities, and the picture could start to shift within weeks.

The enormous scale of humanitarian assistance and outreach this demands simply can’t happen without a sustained stop to the fighting and bombardment, and a dramatic increase in aid delivery to and within Gaza.

Time is of the essence. The world can’t let this window close. We need President Biden’s words to translate into action – there are “a lot of innocent people who are in trouble and dying, and it’s got to stop.”

Jan Egeland is secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council; Tjada D’Oyen McKenna is CEO of Mercy Corps; Jeremy Konyndyk is president of Refugees International; Abby Maxman is president and CEO of Oxfam America; Michelle Nunn is president and CEO of Care USA; Janti Soeripto is president and CEO of Save the Children U.S.; Charles Owubah is CEO of Action Against Hungerand Sean Callahan is president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services.