Weaponization of food is a time-tested wartime strategy. We’re letting it happen again in Gaza

Viewpoint: The engineered famine starving millions of Palestinians is cruel, illegal — and has a grim historical precedent.
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There is a photo that has haunted me since the first time I came across it: a man standing on a mountain of bison skulls, a pile of bones that stretches beyond what the camera could capture.

At the close of the 18th century, an estimated 30 to 60 million wild bison roamed the prairies of North America. Decades later — when that photo was taken, in 1892 — just 500 bison remained in the United States, having been nearly hunted to extinction. They were hunted not for food, but to deliberately starve Indigenous peoples. 

Indigenous peoples relied on bison for food, as well as for their cultural and spiritual practices. Core to the policy of mass slaughter was the idea that engineered starvation would serve as a leverage to suppress the Indigenous population. In Canada, bison were also massacred in the millions. It was with the threat of starvation that formerly nomadic Indigenous peoples in the Canadian prairies finally agreed to settle on reserves. Former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt famously quipped that killing the bison, the main source of food for Indigenous people, was “the only way of solving the Indian question.”

As a food systems expert, I know that forced starvation has been a tool of colonialism and warfare for many centuries. This is because of the simple truth that control over access to food means control over the population.

Our collective human society is littered with examples of engineered food insecurity and famine, from the destruction of 100,000 square kilometers of farmland through the use of Agent Orange by the U.S military in Vietnam, to the Bengal Famine resulting in the death of an estimated 3 million people caused by the British colonial government, and the burning of 40,000 olive orchards in Lebanon by Israeli shelling.

If we thought that forced starvation was the product of a bygone era, the man-made famine unfolding in Gaza should make us think twice. Currently, an estimated 1.1 million people face severe hunger there, as the world watches idly. 

Starvation and modern warfare

After the attack by Hamas on Oct. 7, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant moved toward collective punishment against all Gazans, declaring: “There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed.”

As an occupying power, the government of Israel has the ability to block the delivery of basic necessities from land, air and sea. B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization operating in the occupied territories, reports that Israel has been deliberately denying entry of sufficient food. Israel is no longer approving food aid from the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA) to northern Gaza, where the U.N. agency has been unable to deliver food since late January. The United States has also decided to cut funding to UNRWA (following largely disproven Israeli allegations of links to terrorism) until March 2025, further compounding the problem. 

Nor are Gazans now able to produce their own food as cultivated fields are destroyed. Despite being located on the coast and having access to the ocean, Gazans who try to fish and venture beyond the designated six nautical miles are under threat of imprisonment or direct gunfire. These unjust tactics, systems of segregation and control, and dispossession of land and property have led Amnesty International to call out Israel’s system of apartheid.

“Our communities in Gaza warn that even if they survive Israel’s bombing, they worry that they will die of thirst or starvation,” Yasmeen El-Hasan of the Union of Agricultural Work said in a recent webinar. The grassroots civil society group works in Gaza and the West Bank to help rehabilitate land destroyed by the occupation, preserve native seeds and support farmers.

“Israel’s strategy here? They aim to ensure that those who do survive the bombs are condemned to a future without sustenance.”

“Before Oct. 7, 65% of Gaza’s population was food insecure,” she said. “Now the entire population is at risk of starvation. So Israel’s strategy here? They aim to ensure that those who do survive the bombs are condemned to a future without sustenance.” 

As early as December of 2023, the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification Famine Review Committee determined that 93% of the population in Gaza were suffering from acute food insecurity (phase 3) while over 15% are at the most severe phase of famine (phase 5).

“The catastrophic levels of hunger and starvation in Gaza are the highest ever recorded on the IPC scale, both in terms of number of people and percentage of the population,” Sally Abi Khalil, Oxfam’s Middle East and North Africa Regional Director, noted in a statement. “Never before have we seen such rapid deterioration into widespread starvation.”

A separate report from Oxfam finds that Israel has allowed 15,413 trucks into Gaza in nearly 160 days of war, less than five times what is needed for basic survival. The organization reports that Israeli policy is actively creating choke points for aid and trade, mismanaging its small inspection system, arbitrarily rejecting aid items, and cracking down on aid missions.

“There is an indisputable, man-made, intentional deprivation of aid that continues to suck the life out of any and all humanitarian operations, including our own,” said Celine Maayeh of Juzoor for Health and Social Development, an Oxfam partner organization.

Attacks on children and civilians waiting for aid

The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child has repeatedly warned about the catastrophic hunger and imminent famine, with 27 children having died from malnutrition and dehydration and one in three children under two years old suffering from malnutrition, as of March 21.

The number of civilians impacted by famine will likely be higher, with difficulties in accessing hospitals and collecting data made even more difficult due to the severe staff shortages caused by hundreds of doctors, nurses and medics killed by the Israeli army — estimated close to 500 killed – according to The Healthcare Workers Watch-Palestine. 

We have also seen recent reports of children dying from food poisoning due to eating bread made from animal feed and even reports of starving animals eating human remains. The growing starvation has led U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres to call the situation “a moral outrage.”

Gazans waiting for aid have also been attacked by snipers and tanks in several massacres, with one particularly gruesome incident now known as the “Flour Massacre.” About 115 Palestinians waiting for aid trucks were killed in the grisly attack, and a further 750 were injured. And airdrop aid is not only insufficient, it’s actively causing more devastation: Reports indicate that several Palestinians have been killed and injured as heavy pallets of aid dropped, killing those below due to parachutes failing to open. 

International law and imposed starvation as war crime

The use of starvation on civilians during war is prohibited by the Geneva Convention and is considered a war crime. The destruction of objects that are indispensable to the survival of civilian populations is also prohibited under the Convention. 

Despite the Jan. 26 order by the International Court of Justice for Israel to enable the provision of humanitarian assistance, Haaretz reports that a significant portion of humanitarian aid delivered by relief trucks is being blocked by hundreds of far-right Israeli settlers. 

“The humanitarian situation in Gaza has actually worsened since the International Court of Justice (ICJ) specifically ordered Israel to enable more aid,” Oxfam’s Khalil said. “Israel’s deliberate manufacturing of suffering is systemic and of such scale and intensity that it creates a real risk of a genocide in Gaza.”

“There is no reason to intentionally block the passage of humanitarian aid or intentionally obliterate small-scale fishing vessels, greenhouses and orchards in Gaza — other than to deny people access to food. Israel has announced its intention to destroy the Palestinian people, in whole or in part, simply for being Palestinian.”

Despite all of the evidence, there has been nothing concrete in terms of sanctions at the leadership level or accountability for forced starvation. The E.U. has condemned the illegal confiscation of 1,976 acres of Palestinian land by Israel, but there have been no consequences for doing so. 

In 2022, the Institute of International and European Affairs, a leading international think tank, called for an end to impunity for starvation tactics. Yet, one of the difficulties in prosecuting starvation as a method of warfare is that according to the Rome Statute of the international criminal court, a perpetrator must be shown to have “intentionally used starvation” as a method of warfare. 

In the case of Gaza, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to food Michael Fakhri has concluded that Israel is intentionally starving Palestinians and should be held accountable for war crimes. “There is no reason to intentionally block the passage of humanitarian aid or intentionally obliterate small-scale fishing vessels, greenhouses and orchards in Gaza — other than to deny people access to food,” he told the Guardian. “Israel has announced its intention to destroy the Palestinian people, in whole or in part, simply for being Palestinian.”

Indeed, numerous statements by leaders and settlers point to the intention for collective punishment through starvation. And we are seeing it in real time: The world is being inundated with harrowing images of starving children in Gaza on television and social media. 

We cannot stand by as yet another forced starvation during wartime threatens millions of lives. 

Condemnation and empty statements alone are not sufficient. Accountability is needed to ensure that this imposed starvation ends. Institutions such as the International Criminal Court must act. The international community must explore every possible legal, economic and political avenue to bring an end to the weaponization of food — once and for all.

Tammara Soma is research director and co-founder of the Food Systems Lab. She is also an assistant professor at the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada.