USAID Administrator Says Famine Has Likely Begun in Parts of Gaza

USAID Administrator Says Famine Has Likely Begun in Parts of Gaza
Samantha Power testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 23, 2021 during her confirmation hearing to become the administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development. (Greg Nash/Pool/Getty Images)

A state of famine has begun in northern Gaza, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Samantha Power told lawmakers on Wednesday, adding to potential humanitarian consequences for the ongoing war there.

In a prepared statement ahead of a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Ms. Powers said nearly the entire population of the Gaza Strip “is living under the threat of famine.” Addressing Ms. Powers during the Wednesday hearing, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) noted a recent USAID communication to the White House National Security Council stating that not only is the Gaza Strip at risk of famine but that famine “is already likely occurring” in some areas.

Ms. Power said that the USAID warning to the National Security Council was based on a March assessment conducted in accordance with the United Nation’s Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) methodology. When asked if she agreed with that IPC assessment, Ms. Powers said, “The methodology that the IPCC used is one that we had our experts scrub, it’s one that’s relied upon in other settings, and that is their assessment, and we believe that assessment is credible.”

“So there’s—a famine is already occurring there?” Mr. Castro asked.

“That is—yes,” Ms. Powers reiterated.

The March IPC assessment states North Gaza and Gaza Governorates are classified on the IPC’s acute food insecurity metric as being in Phase 5 or “Famine,” based on reasonable evidence available. The March IPC assessment also states around 70 percent of the population in that area, or around 210,000 people, are IPC household-level food insecurity classification as being in Phase 5 or “Catastrophe”—a situation in which a given household “has an extreme lack of food even after full employment of coping strategies” and in which “starvation, death, destitution and extremely critical acute malnutrition levels are evident.”

The IPC assessment states that southern parts of Gaza are in IPC Phase 4, “Emergency,” and face a risk of famine going forward.

The USAID administrator affirmed these famine concerns at a time when the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict poses rising costs for civilians caught in the middle.

Humanitarian Corridors

President Joe Biden’s administration has expressed support for the Israeli war effort, which was launched in response to an Oct. 7 attack in which more than 1,100 civilians and Israeli security personnel were killed. But the conflict has divided Democratic lawmakers and their supporters as it has gone on, and many have pressed for a more immediate ceasefire effort and increased humanitarian aid in the embattled territory.

“Various organizations, including the United Nations, have warned that hundreds of thousands of Palestinian children may die if they don’t get necessary food and nutrition assistance in just the next two to three weeks,” Mr. Castro continued during the hearing. “Has USAID made such an assessment itself, and do you have a sense of how many such children might be at risk of dying if they don’t get access to food and nutrition that’s currently unavailable?”

Ms. Powers responded that the rate of malnutrition in the Gaza Strip was “almost zero” prior to Oct. 7 but is now “one in three.” She indicated that these rates are likely to worsen as time goes on.

“In terms of actual severe, acute malnutrition for [those under five years old], that rate was 16 percent in January and became 30 percent in February,” she continued. “We’re awaiting the March numbers, but we expect it to get markedly worse.”

The Biden administration has pressured the Israeli government to take greater steps to ensure food, and other forms of humanitarian aid can more readily flow to the Gaza Strip.

During the hearing, Ms. Power said around 400 truckloads of supplies were able to enter the Gaza Strip on Wednesday amid efforts by the Biden administration to expand those deliveries, but said “we need to go way beyond that.” She said around 500 commercial and humanitarian trucks would enter the territory on a daily basis prior to Oct. 7, and the destruction since the start of the conflict has further degraded access to food.

“The destruction of greeneries, and markets, and arable land, and then the fact that so few trucks got in over so many months means we have massive catch-up to do,” she added.

The Biden administration has also conducted several humanitarian air drops to keep food and supplies flowing into Gaza. Ms. Power admitted some reluctance to deliver aid via airdrop, noting such airdrops can be imprecise and less cost-effective than other delivery methods.

“They’re a last resort and they were needed in Gaza because if there was insufficient land access,” she said.

The Biden administration has also taken steps to enable humanitarian aid deliveries by sea, constructing a pier on Gaza’s Mediterranean coast to facilitate aid transfers.

How Humanitarian Aid Impacts Hamas

During the hearing, Rep. Kathy Manning (D-N.C.) raised concerns that Hamas is a major factor exacerbating struggles to bring aid deliveries into the Gaza Strip. The Congresswoman noted conversations she had with constituents with relatives in the Gaza Strip, who described suffering during the ongoing conflict and who believed defeating Hamas would alleviate their problems.

Ms. Power said she would have expected Hamas to be a greater hindrance to humanitarian efforts, but said various international and humanitarian aid organizations have not reported that the designated terrorist organization is getting in the way of aid deliveries, nor has the Israeli military.

“I have been getting reports, in fact, that Hamas is targeting punishing or hindering Palestinians who are working with the International Community to provide humanitarian assistance,” Ms. Manning replied. “You have not seen any evidence of that?”

“I would be very interested in those reports but that is not what our partners are reporting back to us,” Ms. Power said.

Ms. Manning then asked if Hamas is benefitting from the flow of humanitarian supplies into the Gaza Strip. The USAID administrator said she could not be sure how specifically Hamas might benefit from humanitarian aid shipments but posited that families of Hamas members might be getting supplies.

Ms. Manning then asked Ms. Power if she knew how Hamas fighters were getting food in the ongoing conflict, but the USAID administrator replied that she did not.

“I appreciate the work you do, I truly do, but I know that there is a hostage deal on the table, a ceasefire deal on the table, right now, and Hamas is the party that is refusing to accept the deal,” Ms. Manning said. “And I am deeply worried that there are things that we are doing that are preventing Hamas from taking the deal and releasing those hostages, including American citizens, and it keeps me up at night.”
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