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Expert group refutes claims of famine in Gaza

The Famine Review Committee found reports, including those put forward by the United Nations, that Israel is starving Gazans to be implausible.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres addresses the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 17, 2024. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres addresses the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 17, 2024. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images.

For months, the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification—a multi-partner initiative that includes the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization—has issued assessments of current and imminent famine in parts of Gaza. The IPC has done so, in part, using information from the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, which the U.S. Agency for International Development backs.

But claims, which have been widely reported in the international news media and which have been cited in cases in The Hague against the Jewish state, that rely on data from the IPC and from the warning systems are inaccurate, according to a recent analysis by the Famine Review Committee.

The committee, a panel of experts in nutrition and food security that is part of the IPC, recently released a June 4 analysis, which it published in May, that documents significant flaws in the IPC’s methodologies, assumptions, calculations and conclusions. 

The Famine Review Committee doesn’t find the Famine Early Warning Systems Network’s “analysis plausible given the uncertainty and lack of convergence of the supporting evidence employed in the analysis,” per the report. “Therefore, the FRC is unable to make a determination as to whether or not famine thresholds have been passed during April.”

Two members of the Famine Review Committee referred questions from JNS to the IPC. JNS sought comment from the IPC. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network declined to comment.

JNS asked Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres about the Famine Review Committee report at a press briefing on Thursday.

The committee is “one set of experts,” Haq said. He added that the United Nations is “waiting for” an updated IPC report, which he expects next week. He added that Guterres “has faith in the professionalism of the IPC, including their process of revising their estimates to account for new information coming in.”

From one to five

The U.S.A.I.D.-backed Famine Early Warning Systems Network uses a scale from one to five, with phase five indicating famine—the most catastrophic of food insecurity situations.

At least 20% of households in a given area must face extreme lack of food, 30% of children in that area must suffer from acute malnutrition and at least two people out of every 10,000 have to be dying daily for phase five to kick in, according to the IPC.

Claims by the IPC that there was a phase five situation in Gaza led to international condemnation of Israel, with repeated accusations that Jerusalem was using food as a weapon of war by blocking entry of aid into Gaza. 

The Jewish state has long said that the United Nations and its partners are responsible for a consistent and lengthy backup of aid trucks, which Israel and Egypt have cleared and that have already entered Gaza. Hamas and other armed Gazan gangs have also been documented stealing humanitarian aid and other goods—which the White House, U.S. State Department and Pentagon have noted at times.

South Africa’s case against the Jewish state at the International Court of Justice, the principal U.N. judicial arm which is located in The Hague, also cited the famine assessment, and Karim Khan, prosecutor of the International Criminal Court—another U.N. judicial body—said he was seeking arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant in part due to what he said were alleged intentional efforts to starve Gazans.

Math that doesn’t add up

In its study, the Famine Review Committee noted several apparent mistakes in the IPC reporting, including the latter’s decision, left unexplained, not to include delivered food from commercial and private contractors in Gaza. The IPC also left out goods that the World Food Programme, a U.N. agency, delivered to bakeries in northern Gaza.

When the committee added those deliveries into the calculation, it turned out that Gazans surpassed internationally-recommended daily kilo-caloric intakes in April—even when using the most conservative estimates of the data.

The committee also questioned whether the mortality rates in Gaza had met the threshold required to declare a phase four or five classification.

For there to be a phase five classification—which would suggest two deaths per 10,000 people from starvation, there would have to have been between 15,000 and 23,000 people who died from starvation or malnutrition combined with disease over the course of the war, depending on how the IPC’s assessments were interpreted. (There were fewer people in northern Gaza in December when the IPC first made its assessment, but many people had evacuated by the time it reassessed in February.)

The Famine Review Committee noted that food insecurity was cited in reference to some 30 deaths in March and a single death in April, which is collectively about 500 times less than the threshold for phase five.

JNS asked the U.N. secretary-general’s office about the IPC’s data prior to the release of the Famine Review Committee’s study. (Days before, the World Food Programme had released another famine alert.)

Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman to Guterres, told JNS at a June 10 press briefing that the U.N. secretary-general and the United Nations “have full faith in the work of the IPC, the work that our colleagues at the World Food Programme are doing.”

“These are scientific reviews that we do for hunger hotspots, whether now in Gaza or in Syria or in Sudan, wherever they are,” Dujarric said.

JNS asked if that confidence applies even as the math on starvation deaths did not appear to add up, Dujarric said that Guterres “has full faith in the work and their methodology.”

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