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Nicholas Kristof

A Palestinian girl receives treatment for malnutrition at Al-Awda Hospital in northern Gaza.Credit…Mohammed Salem/Reuters

Soon after the Hamas terrorist attacks on Israel, the Israeli defense minister vowed to impose a “complete siege” on Gaza: “no electricity, no food, no water, no fuel” would be allowed into the territory.

Since then, Israel has allowed some food and other supplies into Gaza, with tight restrictions. As a result, aid organizations have reported starvation, particularly in northern Gaza. Now this appears to have resulted in actual famine, according to Samantha Power, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

In testimony before Congress on Wednesday, Power said that reports that famine was imminent in northern Gaza were credible. Then she was asked directly by Representative Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat, “So famine is already occurring there?”

“That is — yes,” she replied.

The official arbiter of famines, an international group of specialists, has not yet designated a famine underway in Gaza using its technical criteria, but the official declarations are based on lagging indicators. So Power’s statement should be taken mostly as a sign of the general seriousness of the food crisis and the risks of widespread death if it continues.

Malnutrition is already killing children in Gaza; 28 deaths have been officially reported so far. When an area is teetering on the edge of famine, deaths can escalate very rapidly.

Famines primarily kill children under the age of 5. I’ve covered hunger crises around the world, and the scenes are horrible to witness. Dying children are passive, expressionless, silent, not crying — because the body is using every calorie to keep the major organs functioning.

Conflicts in poor countries often kill far more people through hunger and disease than through bombs and bullets. What is unusual about Gaza is this hunger crisis is unfolding in a small, accessible area where 3,000 to 7,000 trucks are reportedly waiting at the border with food. Human Rights Watch has accused Israel of using starvation as a weapon of war.

Israel has repeatedly denied that it obstructs aid. But in the past few days, after a threat by President Biden to put conditions on arms transfers, Israel has allowed far more trucks to enter Gaza. That aid also needs to be distributed, which requires a well-functioning infrastructure that is not now in place.

The importance of the word “famine” is that it can light a fire under international officials and groups to act urgently to save children’s lives. The test of Power’s warning is whether, for America and Israel alike, this actually leads to steps on the ground.

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