The U.N. food agency says “famine is imminent” in northern Gaza, where an estimated 70% of the population faces catastrophic hunger.

The World Food Programme on March 18 released the latest findings of its Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, or IPC, an international process for estimating the scale of hunger crises. It said virtually everyone in Gaza is struggling to get enough food, and around 2,10,000 people in northern Gaza are in Phase 5, the highest, which refers to catastrophic hunger.

It warned that if Israel broadens its offensive to the packed southern city of Rafah, the fighting could drive around half of Gaza’s total population of 2.3 million into catastrophic hunger. In December, the IPC estimated that a quarter of Gaza’s overall population was starving.

Aid groups say they face a burdensome Israeli process to import humanitarian aid, and that distribution in much of Gaza, especially the north, is virtually impossible because of Israeli restrictions, ongoing hostilities and the breakdown of law and order.

Israel says it places no limits on the import of humanitarian aid and blames bottlenecks on the U.N. agencies distributing it.

The U.S. and other countries have carried out airdrops in recent days and a sea corridor has just opened up. But aid groups say those efforts are costly and inefficient, and are no substitute for Israel opening up more land routes.

Starvation is used as a weapon of war, says top EU diplomat

In a separate development, the European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, accused Israel of continuing to hinder efforts to deliver aid to Gaza, saying the territory faces an “entirely man-made” famine as “starvation is used as a weapon of war.”

“We are in a state of famine, affecting thousands of people,” EU foreign policy chief Borrell said at an international aid conference in Brussels. “Starvation is used as a weapon of war.”

He went on to call for greater efficiency at the two functioning border crossings and for Israel to open additional ones.

“Israel has to do it. It is not a question of logistics. It is not because the United Nations has not provided enough support,” he said. “The support is there, waiting. Trucks are stopped. People are dying, while the land crossings are artificially closed.”

Israeli authorities say they place no limits on the entry of aid and accuse U.N. bodies of failing to distribute it in a timely manner, saying aid piles up on the Gaza side of the crossings. Aid groups say distribution is impossible in much of Gaza because of ongoing hostilities, the difficulty of coordinating with the military and the breakdown of law and order.

The international aid group Oxfam said Sunday that a “dysfunctional and undersized inspection system” snarls the entry of aid, with trucks stranded in long lines for 20 days on average The group says it has an entire warehouse filled with goods that were rejected, including oxygen, incubators and water and sanitation gear.

“Israeli authorities are not only failing to facilitate the international aid effort but are actively hindering it,” said Oxfam Mideast director Sally Abi Khalil.

Al Shifa hospital targeted

Meanwhile, Israeli forces launched another raid on the Gaza Strip’s largest hospital on March 18, saying Hamas militants had regrouped there and had fired on them from inside the compound, where Palestinian officials say tens of thousands of people have been sheltering.

The army last raided Al Shifa hospital in November after claiming that Hamas maintained an elaborate command centre within and beneath the facility. The military revealed a tunnel leading to some underground rooms, as well as weapons it said were found inside the hospital. But the evidence fell short of the earlier claims, and critics accused the army of recklessly endangering the lives of civilians.

People sheltering in the hospital said Israeli forces backed by tanks and artillery had surrounded the medical complex and that snipers were shooting at people inside. They said the army raided a number of buildings and detained dozens of people.

“We’re trapped inside,” said Abdel-Hady Sayed, who has been sheltering in the medical facility for over three months. “They fire at anything moving. … Doctors and ambulances can’t move.”

Gaza’s Health Ministry said the Israeli army was directing gun and missile fire at a building used for specialized surgeries. It said a fire broke out at the hospital’s gate. The ministry said around 30,000 people are sheltering at the hospital, including patients, medical staff and people who have fled their homes seeking safety.

Airdrops by the U.S. and other nations continue, while deliveries on a new sea route have begun, but aid groups say it’s essential that Israel open up more ground routes and ease restrictions to meet the mounting humanitarian needs.


Magdy reported from Cairo and Goldenberg from Tel Aviv, Israel. Associated Press writer Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed.


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