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UN official admits lack of data indicating famine in Gaza

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“Whether it is classified as a famine or not is not the point,” said the chief economist at the World Food Programme, a United Nations agency.

Mike Wagenheim


With Tuesday’s release of a new report from a food-insecurity agency aligned with the United Nations, global headlines blared the news of “catastrophic” hunger levels and a “high risk of famine” in Gaza.

But months of projections that have proven inaccurate, a critical review of the agency’s work by its own committee of experts and a U.N. official’s admission that the data doesn’t align with the new report’s message raise questions about assumptions on Gazan food insecurity and cast credible doubt over accusations that Israel has starved Gazans intentionally.

An overview of Tuesday’s report by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) states that 495,000 Gazans are “still facing” famine. Data from the same report, however, shows that 495,000 Gazans are projected to face famine in the coming months—not that they currently face famine.

The report’s release came just weeks after the IPC’s Famine Review Committee found that assessments of Gazan famine were not plausible, due to incorrect assumptions, a misreading of data and, notably, a glaring omission of substantial amount of food entering Gaza through the commercial and private sectors. The U.N. World Food Programme has also delivered food to northern Gazan bakeries.

The IPC still opened its overview of the Tuesday report stating that “a high risk of famine persists across the whole Gaza Strip as long as conflict continues and humanitarian access is restricted,” with about 96% of Gazans—2.15 million people—facing “high levels of acute food insecurity through September 2024.”

The “whole territory” is classified as in “emergency,” or phase four of the IPC, and more than 495,000 people—22% of Gazans—“are still facing catastrophic levels of acute food insecurity,” or IPC phase five, per the overview.

“In this phase, households experience an extreme lack of food, starvation and exhaustion of coping capacities,” with another 745,000 people, or 33% of Gazans, classified as in emergency, or phase four, it adds.

Arif Husain
Arif Husain, chief economist at the World Food Programme, briefs reporters on the secretary-general’s policy brief on the impact of COVID-19 on food security and nutrition on June 9, 2020. Credit: Manuel Elías/U.N. Photo.

Despite international news reports of looming famine, a chart in the IPC release showed that the data doesn’t reflect a current famine in Gaza, as the IPC said in its overview. Instead, the data is a projection of what might happen months from now.

From May 1 to June 15, just 15% of the analyzed Gazan population was in phase five, and just 29% of Gazans were in phase four, according to a chart later in the IPC overview.

Even those milder assessments are being brought into question.

Of the three IPC benchmarks used to determine if an area is in the Phase 5 level of food insecurity—meaning famine—two must be met.

Those benchmarks are death rates (at least two adults or four children per 10,000 people who die from starvation), whether at least one-fifth of the population is experiencing an extreme lack of food, and if acute, malnutrition levels surpass 30%.

But in response to a question from JNS at a press briefing the day of the report’s release, Arif Husain, chief economist and director of analysis, planning and performance at the World Food Programme, admitted that none of the three benchmarks is being met.

Husain told JNS on Tuesday that there are no figures available currently about deaths by starvation in Gaza.

“It’s not even a matter of being available. I don’t think that they are even collected,” Husain told JNS.

Even the Hamas-run Gazan health ministry has only claimed that 32 people died of starvation in March and one in April.

Asked why the IPC keeps making famine assessments and projections without meeting its data standards, Husain said classification wasn’t relevant.

“Whether it is classified as a famine or not—is declared as a famine or not—is not the point,” Husain told JNS. “It is not enough to say, ‘Okay, yeah, there is a famine, now that’s that.’ We must act and continue to act to avert a famine.”

Husain pointed to some 250,000 people who died in Somalia in 1992, half of whom perished before a famine was declared, which he connected to what is happening in Gaza.

Still, the assessments and projections of famine have had major consequences for Israel, which has dealt with continuous accusations of limited humanitarian-aid delivery to Gaza.

‘Justify the failure of the predictions’

Karim Khan, prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, listed the accusation of intentional starvation first when announcing he was seeking arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

The projections that the IPC has publicized have been well off the mark.

Some 30% of Gazans were in phase five in March, per the IPC’s data. Although the group projected that figure would reach 50% by July, the number, per its data, had actually dropped to 15%.

The IPC said that 39% of Gazans were in phase four—characterized by extreme food shortages, high disease and malnutrition levels and rapidly increasing hunger-related deaths—in March. It projected that number would be 38% in July. In the latest IPC report, only 28% of Gazans were in phase four.

Mark Zlochin, a computer scientist and artificial intelligence researcher who has worked at the Weizmann Institute of Science among other academic institutions, told JNS that the IPC’s projections appear to be “based on the assumption that there won’t be a major change in the circumstances.”

“They basically justify the failure of the predictions by saying that there was a significant increase in the amount of aid going into Gaza, and this was what reversed the trend,” he said.

Famine projections also “ignore the fact that in most of Gaza, except for maybe northern governorates, there has been a downtrend in several key indicators since December, so the change didn’t start in March, as they claim,” he said.

“As to the new projection, frankly, I didn’t manage to find any serious argument that would support their prediction that the percentage of households at phase five will go up, apart from some general hand waving,” Zlochin added.

Both mortality and serious malnutrition indicators—including mid-upper arm circumference—suggest “phase three at the most, so again, it’s not clear how they justify phase four classification,” Zlochin told JNS.

“Currently, they no longer mention the possibility of area-wide phase five, but only focus on the level of individual households,” he said.

Image: Arif Husain, chief economist at the World Food Programme, at a Food and Agriculture Organization event in Rome on July 7, 2023. Credit: Cristiano Minichiello/FAO, via U.S. Mission to the United Nations Agencies in Rome.

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