People in Gaza are being starved to death. And we are all witnessing, if not complicit in, it.

But this human tragedy is a deliberate choice. It is the consequence of a political decision. It is both avoidable and reversible. All of us – as diplomats, international lawyers, humanitarians but most importantly, as individuals – have the moral obligation to raise our voices in outcry of this catastrophe and in efforts to stop it.

We, as the international community including Israel, should embrace the only real solution to prevent more civilians from starving – an immediate humanitarian ceasefire; a ceasefire that would enable rapid and efficient access to humanitarian aid by land. In the meantime, Israeli authorities must ensure complete and unfettered access to humanitarian goods throughout Gaza. To emphasize, both of those – access into and distribution within the Strip – are key.

Human dignity simply cannot be held hostage to conflict.

Unprecedented and Catastrophic Hunger in Gaza

The levels of imminent famine that Gaza is facing are unprecedented. According to the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), 70 percent of the population is already suffering from catastrophic levels of hunger. The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) – a multi-stakeholder platform that analyzes data from the WFP, other U.N. agencies, and nongovernmental organizations to determine the severity and magnitude of hunger crises – reports that as of March 10, around 1.1 million people in Gaza, half its population “have completely exhausted their food supplies and coping capacities and are struggling with catastrophic hunger (IPC Phase 5) and starvation.” That is 300,000 more people than the estimated 800,000 victims of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. And according to the organization, this is the highest number of people ever recorded as facing catastrophic hunger by the IPC system.

U.N. officials are also sounding the alarm of impending famine. Secretary General António Guterres has stated that “food insecurity in Gaza is an appalling indictment of conditions on the ground for civilians;” U.N. Humanitarian Chief Martin Griffiths wrote on X (formerly Twitter) that “the international community should hang its head in shame for failing to stop it;” Tor Wennesland, Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, has said that “keeping Gaza on a drip-feed not only deprives a desperate population of life-saving support, it drives even greater chaos that further impedes humanitarian delivery;” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk commented that “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;” and Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, has declared that “this is unacceptable. Starvation is used as a weapon of war. Israel is provoking famine.”

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided to press ahead with Israel’s ground invasion of Rafah; an invasion for which the U.N. fears will potentially lead to the commission of war crimes, adding to what experts have called one of the most destructive military campaigns in recent history.

There is no doubt that the Hamas attack of last October 7, which took the life of around 1,200 innocent people, and ensnared hundreds of hostages many of whom are still in captivity, was a horrific and unspeakable act of terror that is condemned; and there is no doubt that the remaining hostages must be released immediately and unconditionally.

However, legally and morally, the reality that is unfolding before our eyes in Gaza cannot and must not be justified.

Imminent famine is the last straw in this extremely imbalanced and devastating conflict. According to the latest situation report of the U.N. relief agency for Palestine (UNRWA):

  • As of March 18, at least 31,726 Palestinians have been killed in the Gaza Strip since October 7 (while the official numbers are widely viewed as the most reliable, many experts say the official toll is very likely an undercount), and another 73,792 have been reportedly injured.
  • About 70 percent of those killed are reported to be women and children;
  • As of March 18, up to 1.7 million people (over 75 percent of the population) have been displaced across the Gaza Strip, some multiple times;
  • As of March 16, 168 UNRWA officers have been killed since the beginning of hostilities; and
  • According to the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), access to people in Gaza City and Northern Gaza remains very restricted with only 25 percent of its aid missions planned to the north in February having been facilitated by Israeli authorities.

UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini recently said that more children have been killed in Gaza in recent months than in four years of conflict worldwide. At least 12,300 children have died in the enclave in the last four months, compared with 12,193 globally between 2019 and 2022, the U.N. estimates. And according to UNICEF, the U.N. Children’s Fund, at least 23 children have reportedly died of malnutrition and dehydration in recent weeks in the north of the Gaza Strip.

Only exceptionally has humanity been faced with such an appalling man-made crisis. Comparisons are even more exceptional in recent history. In good part, this is thanks to the adoption of the U.N. Charter and the creation of the United Nations after World War II, which established a collective security system that, as a general rule, prohibits the use of force as well as the development of international law, in particular international human rights law, international humanitarian law (IHL), and international criminal law. Taken together with the creation of accountability mechanisms such as international courts and tribunals, aimed at ending impunity particularly for the most heinous crimes, these tools create a constellation of rules to defend and protect human dignity.

And yet, in the twenty-first century we are following in real time and with live streaming how an entire people are brought to the brink of total collapse. We literally see this outrage on our phones and mobile devices with information being updated by the hour.

Global Consensus Towards a Humanitarian Ceasefire

There have been – and continue to be – many leaders around the world (not to mention parliamentarians, civil society organizations, social groups, and academicians) who, at the very least, have repeatedly called for a ceasefire, for humanitarian assistance to be delivered without restrictions, and for full compliance with the rules of IHL. No State has expressed support for or condoned this humanitarian crisis – not even the United States. U.S. President Joe Biden has said that “the conduct of the response in Gaza […] has been over the top” and Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) – the Majority Leader of the Senate and the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in the United States – has recently said about Prime Minister Netanyahu that “he has been too willing to tolerate the civilian toll in Gaza, which is pushing support for Israel worldwide to historic lows. Israel cannot survive if it becomes a pariah.”

As vetoes continue to paralyze the U.N. Security Council (the United States has vetoed three resolutions calling for a ceasefire and Russia and China have most recently vetoed another), the U.N. General Assembly at least is taking action. Last December, it adopted Resolution ES-10/22, entitled, “Protection of civilians and upholding legal and humanitarian obligations.” It expressed “grave concern over the catastrophic humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip and the suffering of the Palestinian civilian population” and emphasized “that the Palestinian and Israeli civilian populations must be protected in accordance with international humanitarian law.” This concise resolution had only three main points, quoting in full:

  1. Demands an immediate humanitarian ceasefire;
  2. Reiterates its demand that all parties comply with their obligations under international law, including international humanitarian law, notably with regard to the protection of civilians; and
  3. Demands the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages, as well as ensuring humanitarian access.

The Resolution was adopted with the overwhelming support of 153 votes in favor (well over a two-thirds majority), from across all five regional groups at the U.N., 10 against, and 23 abstentions. And this was beforethe catastrophic hunger and starvation that Gaza faces today.

In an unprecedented move, South Africa brought Israel to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) claiming that the latter has breached its obligations under the U.N. Genocide Convention, and the Court has already found that there is enough ground to examine the merits, rejecting Israel’s request to dismiss the case. Moreover, in its Jan. 26 provisional measures order, the Court required Israel to, among other steps, “take immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance to address the adverse conditions of life faced by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.”

The Wrong Premise

Meanwhile, Israel’s position remains the same: the world has colluded against it.

During the Security Council debate of Nov. 29 2023, the Permanent Representative of Israel to the U.N., Ambassador Gilad Menashe Erdan, said that “every United Nations body has been weaponized against Israel.” Later, in the Security Council session of Jan. 12, 2024, he said that “it has become evidently clear that the United Nations can only unite on one thing: the demonization of Israel.”

And in the same General Assembly session in which resolution ES-10/22 was adopted, he called on member States to vote against it, affirming that:

No piece of paper, especially one that is adopted by a biased, politicized majority, will prevent Israel from defending itself against those that seek our destruction. Israel is fighting a war for its future. There is not a single Member State here that would act differently in a similar situation. (emphasis added)

Ambassador Erdan, respectfully, you are wrong. Not only is it very hard to find a similar situation to begin with, given the state of occupation that Israel has maintained for decades over the State of Palestine. But even so, given that we are now faced with the highest number of people ever recorded – ever! – as facing catastrophic hunger, it is clear that in recent memory no State has deliberately chosen a path that would starve an entire population in the way Israel is doing now. And this reality, these facts, simply cannot be brushed away under the argument that the entire international community – States, international organizations, civil society, U.N. officers, everyone – is biased and is determined to attack Israel. This is not only false but unsustainable. As the saying goes, “if everyone around you is the problem, maybe you’re the problem.”

Hardly has there been another situation in which the scale of man-made destruction and suffering provokes such anear-unanimous reaction, not regarding the political disputes, but the consensus view of the unacceptability of this inhumane reality. And this is not because of antisemitism or anti-Israelism; this is an anti-abuse, anti-atrocities position. It is pro-human dignity.

In the aftermath of the October 7 heinous attack by Hamas, Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant infamously said, “we are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly,” and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Major General Ghassan Alian stated, “Human animals must be treated as such. There will be no electricity and no water [in Gaza], there will only be destruction. You wanted hell, you will get hell.”

This is and will always be the wrong premise. We cannot become a monster to defeat a monster. Vengeance will never provide justice. That is why humanity developed international law and agreed on rules that must be followed in times of war. Atrocities cannot and must not be the response to atrocities. Not only is this illegal under international law; it is morally and ethically wrong. It is grossly inhumane. It is not who we are, and it is not what we do. That is not how we build society. Acknowledging this is what makes us all civilized – as compared to barbaric. We must respond firmly but in full and strict adherence to the rule of law – as individuals and States alike. As former Nuremberg war crimes prosecutor Benjamin Ferencz wrote in his book, Parting Words, “Don’t become what you hate – if you do, you’ll become some else’s enemy and the cycle will go on endlessly.”

Israel is still responsible to comply with its obligations under international law despite Hamas’ horrific conduct.

At the U.N., Israel has repeatedly said that terrorism is terrorism is terrorism, meaning that it should always be condemned by whomever, whenever, and wherever it is committed, and that there can be no justification whatsoever for terrorist acts. That same logic applies to the prohibition of atrocity crimes, like starving civilians.

Contrary to terrorism, though, where there is no internationally agreed definition of the crime, we do have well-settled legal definitions of the crime of starvation. The use of starvation of the civilian population as a method of warfare is prohibited under customary international law, both for international and non-international armed conflicts. The international community has been so keen on making sure this conduct does not go unpunished that it was just in December 2019 that Article 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) was amended to include starvation as a war crime in non-international armed conflicts. Today, the Rome Statute criminalizes this conduct in both types of conflict – international and non-international – in Articles 8(2)(b)(xxv) and 8(2)(e)(xix), respectively, indicating that “intentionally using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare by depriving them of objects indispensable to their survival, including willfully impeding relief supplies” is a war crime.

So, there it is: starvation is starvation is starvation. And there is no justification whatsoever for it.

Contrary to other ongoing crises in the world, there is an international criminal tribunal with jurisdiction to investigate and adjudicate the situation in Gaza. The State of Palestine is a party to the Rome Statute and there is an open investigation in the ICC regarding the situation in the State of Palestine. Prosecutor Karim A.A. Khan, KC has vowed to make it a priority and to move forward based on solid evidence. In his statement this past December – again, before the current catastrophic levels of hunger and starvation – he said:

I emphasised again that humanitarian assistance must be allowed in at pace, at scale in Gaza. […] And also I emphasised that Hamas must not divert any aid that’s given. But I was crystal clear that this is the time to comply with the law. It’s already late. But if Israel doesn’t comply now, they shouldn’t complain later.

Given the dire situation, the Office of the Prosecutor must demonstrate that it is ready to walk the talk. Time is a commodity that Palestinians simply do not have.

In this same moment, the international community must join efforts and cooperate with the ICC to ensure accountability and that any crimes committed, including starvation, do not go unpunished at any level, including execution of arrest warrants, if and when they are issued. This is particularly relevant for those States who have been adamant about the need to avoid impunity at all costs in the case of the aggression against Ukraine – many of which are ICC States parties – to the point of suggesting the creation of a new criminal tribunal for that purpose.

There can be no selective justice here. The situation in Gaza will once again test double standards in the application of international law. As Secretary General Guterres recently stated, “the basic principle of international humanitarian law is the protection of civilians. We must stick to principles in Ukraine as in Gaza without double standards.”

It is precisely in times of crisis and war – not in times of prosperity and peace – that our humanity is put to a test. These are the moments in history in which we must show who we are, what we are made of.  All of us – as diplomats, international lawyers, humanitarians but most importantly, as individuals – have the moral obligation to raise our voices in outcry against this catastrophe. So no, this is not a global anti-Israeli campaign. It is an attempt to collectively save our human dignity. To be compassionate even in the darkest hour.

Demanding a Humanitarian Ceasefire

On March 24, Israel informed the U.N. that it will no longer approve UNRWA food convoys to the north of Gaza, to which UNRAW’s head Lazzarini responded on Twitter that, “this is outrageous and makes it intentional to obstruct lifesaving assistance during a man-made famine. These restrictions must be lifted.” This measures were announced just after Secretary General Guterres, in his visit to a border crossing in Egypt, declared that the lack of humanitarian access to Gaza was “more than tragic – it is a moral outrage.”

The human tragedy that all of us are witnessing is a deliberate choice. It is the consequence of a political decision. It is therefore avoidable and reversible. Humanitarian experts have also indicated that the air and sea efforts, while commendable, are simply not enough to have the necessary impact given the magnitude of this crisis. The only real solution to prevent more civilians from starving, as Secretary General Guterres has underscored, is an immediate humanitarian ceasefire – a ceasefire that would enable the rapid and efficient access of humanitarian aid by land. In the meantime, Israeli authorities must ensure complete and unfettered access for humanitarian goods throughout Gaza. Human dignity simply cannot be held hostage to conflict.

This must stop. No ifs, no buts.

IMAGE: A smoke plume erupts during Israeli bombardment on a building in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 24, 2024 amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the militant group Hamas. (Photo by AFP via Getty Images)