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Let Them Eat Bread! Starvation as a weapon of war

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Displaced Palestinian children gather with empty containers and pans to receive food at a government school in Rafah on the southern Gaza Strip in February. Palestinians are unable to obtain basic food supplies due to the embargo imposed by Israeli forces. – Picture: Mohammed Abed / AFP / Taken February 19, 2024

By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Acute hunger is a far different creature than the growling we feel in our stomach when we miss a couple of meals or the craving that floods the mind when our taste buds yearn for novel flavours. Acute hunger transfixes our entire organism, pushing everything else aside in favour of our most basic urge for survival. When we’re gripped by extreme hunger, we can think of nothing but food, have no interest in anything but food, and dream of nothing other than a decent meal.

I experienced this kind of hunger myself during my first two years as a monk in Sri Lanka back in the early 1970s. At that time the country was experimenting with new economic policies that led to severe cuts in the food offerings at the rural monastery where I was living. After a few months of insufficient nourishment, I could even feel the cells and tissues of my body crying out for the nutrients they need to perform their life-sustaining functions. At times, I would glance at my rubber slippers in the corner of my hut and wonder whether they were edible.

Acute hunger, however, is not merely a condition that besets individuals as isolated units. Under the impact of larger forces, hunger can acquire a collective dimension, enveloping whole regions and even countries. The consequences of collective hunger can be grave. They include economic decline, epidemics, shorter life spans, and heightened social tensions. Children at risk of hunger are more likely to have poor health and struggle in school, and when these children grow up, their health issues can become a burden on their societies.

Such collective ordeals of hunger are closely connected with conflict, and the causation can flow in both directions. Poverty and hunger may lead to conflict, but more often conflict intensifies hunger. According to the World Food Programme, “Conflict is the #1 driver of hunger in the world”. Eight of the world’s ten most severe food crises are driven by war and conflict, which have pushed 158 million people into acute levels of hunger. When acute hunger occurs in time of war, the suffering it entails can be multiplied many times over.

However, while conflict and hunger are intertwined, we can distinguish those cases where hunger is an incidental consequence of conflict from those where hunger is used tactically as a means of punishing an enemy population. The current crisis in Sudan is an example of hunger occurring as an incidental consequence of conflict. Armed conflict between two rival military factions has engulfed the country and pushed nearly 18 million people into acute and emergency levels of hunger. Eddie Rowe, the WFP Country Director in Sudan, said that “more and more people are struggling to eat a basic meal a day, and unless things change there is a very real risk they won’t even be able to do that”.

In contrast, one side in a conflict may attempt to force its opponents to surrender by deliberately starving them. At present, starvation is being weaponised in such ways in the conflicts taking place in Ukraine and Gaza. Russia’s tactical use of hunger in its war against Ukraine has involved deliberately cutting off civilians’ access to food, water, electricity, and fuel; attacking facilities essential to food production, including water supplies and transport vehicles; and weaponising agriculture, as when Russian forces destroyed over 270,000 tons of foodstuffs in the summer of 2023.

The tactical use of hunger, however, is starkest today in Israel’s campaign against Gaza. In the days following the Hamas attack of October 7, Israeli officials announced they would be stopping all deliveries of food, water, and fuel into Gaza, and they have rigorously followed up on this threat. While, under international pressure, Israel has allowed some aid to enter the territory, the quantities provided are a mere fraction of what is needed. Israeli officials are certainly not unaware of the consequences of this policy. It seems they simply don’t care how it affects Gazans.

The blockade of food has pushed the entire population, including children, to the brink of starvation. Writing for The Guardian in late January, Alex de Waal, the author of Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine, said that “Gaza is experiencing mass starvation like no other in recent history”. He predicted that Palestinian children in Gaza will die, in the thousands, even if the barriers to aid are immediately lifted. A couple of weeks later, UNICEF’s Deputy Executive Director for Humanitarian Action and Supply Operations, Ted Chaiban, warned: “If the conflict doesn’t end now, children’s nutrition will continue to plummet, leading to preventable deaths or health issues, which will affect the children of Gaza for the rest of their lives and have potential intergenerational consequences.”

The madness of war has beset us from the very dawn of the human presence on this planet, but the use of hunger as a weapon in war compounds this insanity with the poison of cruelty.

Since these warnings were issued, the blockade has continued with no sign of abating and the predictions are coming true. Already, reports have appeared that at least twenty-five children have died from dehydration and malnutrition, and it is feared that this is just the start of an escalating death count. To rub salt into the wounds, most recently, when aid convoys do arrive to distribute food, Israeli forces have been shooting people waiting for food at designated distribution points. Several hundred are reported to have been killed in this way. The only way to avert this catastrophe — or at least to mitigate it — is to end the war at once and for Israel to lift its blockade of humanitarian relief.

Legal action is currently under way to force an end to the blockade. Oxfam and Human Rights Watch have accused Israel of using starvation as a “weapon of war” and South Africa has cited the starving of the Gazan population as a genocidal act in its case against Israel at the International Court of Justice (see section 50 in its application, p35). Most recently, South Africa has asked the ICJ to order additional emergency measures against Israel, highlighting the starvation policy that Israel is imposing on Gaza.

Apart from the legal issues, however, from an ethical perspective the weaponisation of hunger must be viewed as a profound moral travesty. Amid the chaos and devastation of war, civilians often have to contend with such challenges as the loss of their homes, forced displacement, lack of access to medical care, personal injury, and the death or injury of loved ones. To aggravate their misery by cutting off their access to food is both an affront to their human dignity and a threat to their physical well-being.

It is also a subtle, slimy form of murder. Whether one shoots a person with a gun, hits them with a rocket, or entirely cuts off their access to food, the result is the same: the person dies, and the perpetrator is guilty, whether they pulled the trigger, released the rocket, or withheld food.

War has always been a condition of mass insanity that blinds us to our deep human interconnections. It is the ultimate expression of greed, hatred, and delusion unleashed from all constraints. The madness of war has beset us from the very dawn of the human presence on this planet, but the use of hunger as a weapon in war compounds this insanity with the poison of cruelty.

If we were to awaken from this madness even for a moment, we would see at once that we must stop resorting to war to settle our differences. The first step to ending current wars, wherever they may be taking place, is to adopt an immediate ceasefire. The tensions and differences that divide us can be settled through negotiations. They will never be resolved by the overt violence of bombs or the subtle violence of blockades.

A fundamental truth taught by the Buddha holds that “all beings are sustained by nutriment”. As simple and obvious as this maxim may appear at first glance, its significance shouldn’t be underestimated, for it is the key both to profound insight and to deep compassion. To see that we all share the same dependency on food is to understand that our lives are woven together in a complex web of mutuality that leaves no room for anyone to oppress or harm others. We are all fragile creatures, all vulnerable beings whose lives depend, day after day, on food as the raw material of our survival.

The realisation that other people, like ourselves, depend on food should awaken in us the deep compassion that makes our hearts tremble with the suffering of those who must endure hunger and malnutrition. This reflection should also inspire in us a majestic generosity of spirit — the generous hand that reaches out to protect those in need and ensures they have the means to flourish.

While this may not reflect current realities, global relations should be regulated by a shared commitment to a moral vision of human affairs and not by the drive for power and domination. Our collective aim should be to promote the common good — beginning with the abolition of hunger — not to shatter it in ruthless outbursts of violence and aggression. In the end, the raw pursuit of power and domination benefits no one. We have the capacity to feed everyone on this planet, and the fulfilment of this capacity should be our shared endeavour.

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi is a Buddhist scholar and translator of Buddhist texts. He is also the founder and chair of Buddhist Global Relief, a charity dedicated to helping communities around the world afflicted by chronic hunger and malnutrition.

This article was published on Common Dreams