OP-ED: Israel Can – and Must – Fight Hamas Without Starving Gazan Civilians to Death

Originally published in Haaretz | March 21st, 2024

For all the agonizing days since October 7, Israel and Gaza have been the subject of a battle of words alongside the actual war. Words – genocide, Zionist, Holocaust, ceasefire – have become specialized weapons to shoot at the other side.

But fighting will only stop when both sides agree to it, or Hamas is crushed, and neither is likely soon. Meanwhile nearly two million people are suffering hideously under the siege. Children are already dying of extreme malnutrition – starving to death, in other words.

They – and rest of Gaza’s population – are denied food, water, medicine, and even anesthesia by means of Israeli delays and prohibitions that can’t be explained by the need to inspect the trucks’ contents for security, and can’t be accurately blamed on Hamas or anyone else.

Entire shipments have been turned back for containing “dual use” items such as kits for delivering babies, and small scissors. Only two crossings into Gaza are open for limited hours, and none to the north, where most of the starving people are. Aerial photos from late February show 2,000 trucks waiting to cross at Rafah. Most are still there now, containing enough food to feed everyone in Gaza, and some have been waiting for as long as 90 days. This information comes directly from U.S. and other international logistics and medical workers and verified photographs.

What’s happening is tantamount to torturing civilians. Though it is true that some of them support Hamas, it is both immoral and illegal to punish human beings for their opinions.

Denying them food, water, and other necessities for life also violates U.S. law. Section 620I of the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act holds:

“No assistance shall be furnished … to any country when it is made known to the President that the government of such country prohibits or otherwise restricts, directly or indirectly, the transport or delivery of United States humanitarian assistance.” The Biden administration is under increasing pressure to hold Israel to account under Section 620I, as eight U.S. Senators including Bernie Sanders demanded last week.

Sanders is very far from alone, as a widely respected Jewish figure demanding that civilians in Gaza be regarded – and treated – like other human beings. For each Jewish person who speaks out or writes publicly, many more privately agree.

Instead of insisting that sufficient aid be allowed into the territory, the United States has begun dropping aid from planes, and U.S. President Joe Biden announced that the U.S. military will begin building a temporary port, to try to get aid in by sea. Both of these steps are tacit recognition that the current system is totally inadequate – and neither will compensate for refusing to let enough trucks in by land.

Airdrops are an inefficient, inadequate, costly, and even dangerous way of providing aid. The temporary port will not be ready for a month or two, and even then it will be difficult and unwieldy to transport food with it. Large numbers of people will sicken and die in the meantime, without better efforts to help them.

Some say that aid should be denied lest Hamas seize it. Hamas have shown themselves to be ruthless, vicious thugs who are happy to make Israeli and Palestinian civilians suffer unspeakably – and the latter makes wonderful anti-Israel propaganda for them. Their viciousness means that trying to hurt Hamas with a siege means starving the entire population. That’s unconscionable, and it’s turning more and more friends of Israel – in the United States and all over the world – into appalled critics.

Moreover, Gazan civilians are now so desperate and so crowded that if Hamas seized aid they would know it, which would turn them against the terrorists.

There are several effective measures that Israel can take to relieve some of the needless suffering and death of civilians. None of these will help Hamas, nor harm Israel.

These steps must be taken immediately:

• Open at least one more crossing so humanitarian aid, including food and water, can be delivered into the north of Gaza.

• Dramatically increase the number of trucks authorized to cross into Gaza daily, through at least three crossings.

• Allow wounded and seriously ill children to leave for medical treatment. Heartbreakingly, in many cases Israel need not decide which adults it should allow to go with the children, since as Doctors Without Borders and other highly respected international aid organizations have reported, they have created a new acronym for a large number of children: “WCNSF” – wounded child, no surviving family. Other children and adults should also be allowed to seek medical treatment outside Gaza, where the vast majority of hospitals are no longer able to function, for lack of fuel, water, medicine and other supplies.

• Allow foreign medical teams from internationally recognized organizations to accompany shipments of basic medical supplies, including antibiotics and painkillers, and to set up field hospitals.

“In wars, people die,” said one of my Israeli family members. It’s true. But war doesn’t require mass starvation of civilians.

Susan Benesch is the founding director of The Dangerous Speech Project, an independent research team. She is also faculty associate of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, and a fellow of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights in Montreal. On Twitter: @SusanBenesch