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MIDDLE EAST CRISIS UPDATE: 29 FEBRUARY 2024

UN sounds the Gaza famine alarm; Israel’s former PM warns against invading Rafah

UN sounds the Gaza famine alarm; Israel’s former PM warns against invading Rafah
People inspect damage and recover items from their homes following Israeli air strikes on 27 February 2024 in Rafah, Gaza. (Photo: Ahmad Hasaballah / Getty Images)

The United Nations warned that one in four people in the Gaza Strip were ‘one step away’ from experiencing famine, a situation it said would further worsen as humanitarian agencies report trouble delivering aid into the war-torn area.

Israel will face dire consequences if it sends troops into the besieged Gazan city of Rafah, according to Ehud Olmert, a former prime minister.

Olmert said the nation’s current leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, should stop the war against Hamas, and focus on a plan that will enable the Israeli army to leave Gaza and international forces to go in as peacekeepers.

One in four Gazans are ‘one step away’ from famine – UN

The United Nations (UN) warned that one in four people in the Gaza Strip were “one step away” from experiencing famine, a situation it said would further worsen as humanitarian agencies report trouble delivering aid into the war-torn area.

Some 575,000 people in Gaza were on the verge of starvation, and essentially all of the local population was relying on food assistance to survive, said Ramesh Rajasingham, coordination director of the UN’s humanitarian office. 

“As grim as the picture we see today is, there is every possibility for further deterioration,” Rajasingham told the UN Security Council on Tuesday. “At this stage, very little will be possible while hostilities continue.” 

Israel has been carrying out a military campaign in the Gaza Strip aimed at destroying Hamas, which is designated a terrorist organisation by the US, after the group invaded southern Israel on 7 October killing some 1,200 people and kidnapping 250 more. Since the fighting began, nearly 30,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to health officials in the Hamas-run territory.

Discussions on Israel pausing military operations in Gaza in exchange for the release of more hostages held by Hamas have intensified in recent days. US President Joe Biden said on Monday negotiators were making progress toward a temporary pause in fighting between Israel and Hamas and that a ceasefire could begin as soon as the start of next week.

The UN warnings come as humanitarian agencies — including its own — reported trouble shipping aid. Border crossing closures, movement restrictions and “onerous” vetting procedures by Israel were all getting in the way of timely delivery, Rajasingham said. 

Deputy Israeli Ambassador Jonathan Miller denied accusations that Israel was keeping humanitarian aid from entering Gaza, saying more than four in five aid delivery requests had been approved this year.

“The arguments heard in this meeting aim to divert attention from the failure of the UN in managing the distribution of aid in Gaza,” Miller told the council. “How is it possible that Israel is blamed for a situation that is the result of a complete failure of the UN?”

Maurizio Martina, the deputy director-general of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, told the Security Council in the same session that “the entire food supply chain has been affected in different ways. Civilian infrastructure, including that essential for the production, processing and distribution of food has been severely damaged, destroyed or made inaccessible.”  

The Security Council has failed to pass a resolution calling for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip as the US and Russia have vetoed various efforts. 

“Which one of these briefings is a straw that will break the camel’s back?” Samuel Žbogar, Slovenia’s envoy to the UN, asked the Security Council. “The situation has been crystal clear for some time. We should all have been convinced by now that our action was needed a long time ago.”

Rafah attack a ‘risk we cannot afford’ – warns Ex-Israeli PM

Israel will face dire consequences if it sends troops into the besieged Gazan city of Rafah, according to Ehud Olmert, a former prime minister.

Olmert said the nation’s current leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, should stop the war against Hamas and focus on a plan that will enable the Israeli army to leave Gaza and international forces to go in as peacekeepers.

The 78-year-old, who led his country between 2006 and 2009 and has long been disdainful of Netanyahu, said other nations, including the US, would find an assault on Rafah intolerable.

“The patience of the international community has reached a point from where I don’t think they’ll be able to absorb it,” he said in an interview.

The most immediate danger for Israel, he said, was that neighbouring Egypt could revoke its 45-year-old diplomatic treaty with the Jewish state.

“It may shatter the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt,” Olmert said in his Tel Aviv office, decorated with two big photos of him and former US President George W Bush. “This is a risk we cannot afford to take.”

The Egyptian government would be happy to see Hamas destroyed, he said, but was concerned about how its people would react to more Palestinian deaths. 

Egypt has warned Israel not to move ground forces into Rafah, where more than one million civilians have sought shelter, though hasn’t said it would pull out of the peace deal. 

Netanyahu and his coalition, the most right-wing in Israel’s history, say an offensive on Rafah is necessary to destroy Hamas as a military and governing force. Israeli officials believe the Iran-backed group has between 5,000 and 8,000 fighters in the city as well as the remaining 100 hostages.

They have pledged to allow civilians to leave before troops move in, but details of that plan are scarce. 

The government’s stance is backed by most Israelis, making Olmert somewhat of a lone voice in a country still traumatised by Hamas’ attack and where calls for a ceasefire can provoke heavy criticism.

Olmert, who was forced from office on corruption charges and spent 16 months in prison, is also unusual in that he began on the right politically and has moved firmly to the left over the past 20 years. Much of the country has migrated in the opposite direction.

He still speaks to senior US and Arab officials and says the longer the war continues, the harder it will be to convince the international community to fund Gaza’s reconstruction and send in peacekeepers. Without the latter, Israel will have to keep troops in the Palestinian territory indefinitely and they’ll be constantly targeted by militants, he says. 

Once Israel’s army is out of Gaza, the government must start peace negotiations with the Palestinians, he said. While those should be without pre-conditions, it was in Israel’s interests to eventually allow for an independent Palestinian state, he said. 

“For a very long period of time, Israel won the hatred of many people across the world because of the occupation,” Olmert said, referring to Gaza and the West Bank. “Because we, for many years, denied any attempt to reach a reasonable understanding with the Palestinians. We haven’t helped create the environment where they can exercise their right to self-determination.” 

Netanyahu, he said, was trying to prolong the war and avoid early elections, which the prime minister denies. 

Olmert predicted mass protests would break out in Israel once fighting in Gaza ends. They would be bigger than the ones in the months before the war — caused by the government’s attempt to weaken the judiciary — and would force Netanyahu to call a vote this year, he said.

“There’s a degree of rage — I see it in the hearts of people now — unprecedented in the state of Israel,” he said. “The hatred against Netanyahu. All this is building up. It will erupt.” DM

Read more in Daily Maverick: Israel-Palestine War
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