Famine and Insecurity in Northern Gaza

Famine is likely underway in the north of Gaza, a man-made crisis resulting from the Israeli government’s obstruction of aid delivery and failure to address a deteriorating security situation.

A displaced Palestinian man pushes a wheelbarrow loaded with his belongings along a street amid the rubble of houses destroyed by Israeli bombardment in the Hamad area of the southern Gaza Strip. (Getty/AFP)

On March 25, 2024, U.S. Department of State Spokesperson Matthew Miller announced that the United States had not found that Israel was in violation of any humanitarian law, including law on the provision of humanitarian assistance. This announcement followed weeks of worsening food security conditions, including recent declarations that famine is likely underway in parts of northern Gaza. What the State Department’s determination fails to acknowledge is that these famine conditions are the result of the Israeli government’s direct and indirect actions, as it has obstructed aid delivery and abdicated responsibility for a deteriorating security situation in Gaza, which has prevented aid from reaching those most desperately in need.

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The severity of the situation in north Gaza became tragically evident on February 29, when a convoy of food aid organized by Palestinian businessmen in coordination with the Israeli government entered Gaza City. Desperate for food, thousands rushed to the trucks as they arrived, and Israeli soldiers fired into the crowd. While the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and Gazan health workers have contested the number of civilians killed by Israeli gunfire or in a stampede, more than 118 died and 700 were wounded in what is now known as the “flour massacre.”

The flour massacre exposed the direct link between the deteriorating security environment in Gaza and the impending famine there. After conducting a ground incursion into northern Gaza, the Netanyahu government has left a security vacuum that it has largely relied on armed clans to fill. This approach has not only thrust hundreds of thousands in north Gaza into urgent crisis, but it also risks a prolonged legacy of lawlessness and instability, which may lead to greater suffering and continued violence—an albatross around the neck of any future governing body.

The creation of famine

Israel began ground operations in northern Gaza on October 27, 2023, after weeks of heavy bombardment and blockades on aid, including food and medical supplies, as well as fuel, electricity, and water. In early October, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant declared, “We are imposing a complete siege on Gaza. There will be no electricity, no food, no water, no fuel.” Israeli forces entered Gaza City the first week of November and moved south toward Khan Younis in early December. By early January, the IDF began withdrawing its ground troops from Gaza City. The invasion and Israeli strikes killed more than 22,000 throughout the enclave from October 7 until the beginning of Israeli troops’ withdrawal from Gaza, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. The U.N. Satellite Center reported that Israeli strikes damaged or destroyed more than 11,000 buildings, including hospitals.

We are imposing a complete siege on Gaza. There will be no electricity, no food, no water, no fuel. – Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, October 2023

Prior to the ground invasion, the IDF issued evacuation orders for the more than 1 million civilians living in these areas, but as many as 300,000 remained in the Gaza City area at the time the IDF moved into Gaza. Many were unable to flee or preferred to remain with their homes or loved ones than to face an uncertain fate in the south, where Israeli bombardments and deadly clashes continued in many areas. While the Israeli government has since ostensibly lifted the blockade on aid to the north, it has functionally prevented regular access for international organizations by creating prohibitive inspection routines, arbitrarily rejecting supplies, and outright denying access to some convoys.

These obstacles are even greater for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which has provided aid and services in Gaza since the 1950s. Israeli officials have repeatedly accused the UNRWA of being “infiltrated” by terrorists, and UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini has reported that Israel has decided to deny access to any UNRWA convoys to northern Gaza. After allegations that 12 UNRWA employees participated in Hamas’ October 7 attacks, the United States—UNRWA’s largest donor—and more than a dozen other countries cut off aid. Since then, the United Nations has undertaken an extensive investigation and reported no further evidence of terrorist activities. While many countries have resumed aid to UNRWA, on March 22, Congress passed a prohibition on U.S. funding for the agency through March 2025, a blow that is likely to further curb UNRWA’s ability to operate.

Taken together, these circumstances have created a dire situation across Gaza, and one that is catastrophic in the north. The Palestinian Red Crescent has reported that a daily average of 95 aid trucks has entered Gaza from early October to early February, a small fraction of the more than 500 trucks per day that entered the territory prior to October 7. Without this aid, starvation and malnutrition have taken hold: 1.1 million people in Gaza are food insecure, and around 210,000 people in the north are likely experiencing famine already.

Security breakdown

As seen in the flour massacre, the deterioration of the security situation in north Gaza has compounded the ability to deliver aid, causing some international organizations to pause deliveries altogether. Prior to the conflict, security forces associated with the Hamas government acted as municipal police, establishing order around towns and cities—often through repressive and violent tactics. Now, as the Israeli offensive has killed or displaced many who had previously served in Gaza’s security and civic administration sectors, this security infrastructure has all but vanished. Local clans, many—but not all—of which have acted as armed militias, a few remaining Hamas civilian police, and Hamas militants have filled the vacuum.

Some Hamas-affiliated police forces have remained in the north and have attempted to restore order around delivery of aid. On March 17, Hamas civilian police in plain clothes escorted six trucks of food all the way to the Jabalia refugee camp, an area that convoys had not been able to reach in as many as four months. Prior to the arrival of the convoy, police were able to distribute flyers and share information instructing people to let the trucks pass. But civilian police represent only remnants of the pre-conflict force, and it is unclear how much of the force remains after Israeli strikes targeted them over the past month. On March 18, Israeli forces killed the officer who was responsible for the Jabalia operation in an attack on al-Shifa hospital.

In the absence of a robust police force, Israel has turned to some of Gaza’s local clans to provide security services. Israeli officials have quietly developed plans to turn over some administrative functions to these “anti-Hamas” clans. At least two clans are in conversation with Israel, although others have publicly rejected these proposals, declaring their support for the Palestinian Authority. And while the clans’ armed men keep law and order in some areas, they also confiscate and sell some of the aid and prevent ordinary people from accessing it.

The empowerment of clans poses other security challenges in Gaza. Before Hamas took over Gaza in 2007 and cracked down on the clans, they were a source of lawlessness and criminal activity in the enclave. Now, as some clans have begun to work directly with Israeli authorities, they face confrontation with Hamas, risking further civil strife. Even more troubling, at least one of the clans that may be coordinating with Israel—the “Dogmoush” clan—has been closely associated with a jihadi ideology and ties to the al-Qaida-aligned “Army of Islam” militant group. Along with Hamas, the Dogmoush clan was responsible for the 2006 kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, although Hamas later engaged in armed confrontation with the group; in 2007, the Army of Islam clan kidnapped British journalist Alan Johnston. This clan’s rise raises the specter of new extremist violence, and it presents a particular danger to the small Christian minority in Gaza.

Stabilization efforts urgently needed

While the United States and other international partners work to establish a ceasefire, Israel must abide by a March 24 U.N. Security Council resolution that demands it immediately lift barriers to aid delivery, allowing international organizations to move quickly and efficiently. Critically, as U.S. funding to UNRWA is prohibited until March 2025, other donor governments will need to work together to address the funding gap and push back on Israel’s efforts to dismantle the agency.

A more coordinated and legitimate provision of security is another key element in addressing the humanitarian crisis, with longer-term governance implications. Here, the Palestinian Authority (PA)—currently the only legitimate Palestinian governing body—is best placed to implement robust plans in the immediate term. Rather than Israel working with clans directly, the PA could more effectively incorporate these clans into a security architecture, but it should exclude clans that are connected to jihadist ideology or violent criminal activity. Furthermore, the PA may consider incorporating civilian police.

Stabilization plans should also be centered in ceasefire negotiations. Ultimately, effective stabilization that can prevent famine and deliver peace must rely on principles of ownership, legitimacy, and capacity. This means that Gaza will require a capable civilian government trusted by the local population—and that has the support of the international community—to resolve the current man-made crisis.


Without immediate improvements in security and a corresponding vast increase in humanitarian deliveries, death and suffering in Gaza may exceed that caused by military strikes. Beyond the devastating human toll, the situation in north Gaza represents a complex crisis that could last for long after the conflict ends—and one whose costs will be inherited by any future governing body.


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Allison McManus

Managing Director, National Security and International Policy

Center For American Progress

Khalil Sayegh

Co-Founder and President

Agora Institute

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