Global leaders now need to put aside politics and reach a solution as Gaza hangs on brink of famine

Whilst it hasn’t come as any real surprise that Russia and China vetoed today’s US draft resolution for a ceasefire in Gaza, the language around discussions at the UN revealed starkly how the international response to this dreadful conflict is both shifting, and faltering.

Ironically this was the first time that the US has supported calls for an immediate ceasefire in the region, having previously blocked other demands such demands at the UN. Moscow – which alongside China has been calling for the ceasefire to be unconditional on the release of hostages – dismissed the US text as “hypocritical” and the US policy shift has revealed the first signs of a general weakening of support for Israel’s campaign of retribution and military action in the region.

Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu – clearly unimpressed with the diminishing support from his key ally, has insisted that Israel is going ahead with a planned ground assault on Rafah, regardless of the level of US support.

The US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, who was in Tel Aviv today for talks, said that such an operation was not the answer.

“It risks killing more civilians, it risks wreaking greater havoc with the provision of humanitarian assistance, it risks further isolating Israel around the world and jeopardising this long-term security and standing,” he said.

The combination of unacceptable casualty figures, divided global opinion and spiralling costs is making even the most enthusiastic of advocates increasingly nervous.

The casualty count on the Gaza strip is approaching 32,000 people, and the region is now teetering on the brink of a genuine famine, with some two million people facing critical shortages of food, medicines and fuel.

Aid is available but in this bitter and chaotic conflict it has been almost impossible to create safe supply routes, and more than 100 aid workers have already been killed. In fact UNRWA, the United Nations relief agency for Palestinian Refugees, has claimed that 165 of its workers alone have been killed in the five months of the conflict.

In what is a precipitously balanced election year for the Americans, political leaders have begun to recognise that their unstinting support for Israel and a continuance of military action is placing them dangerously at odds with increasing numbers of US voters.

If a formal state of famine were to be declared in northern Gaza is this would have huge implications and obligations for those countries currently signed up to blockades and the deterioration of conditions on the Gaza strip.

According to the UN, famine in northern Gaza is imminent and is likely to occur any time between now and the end of May. Half of the two million population are already at starvation point, and growing insecurity looks like it will inevitably tip the entire population over the brink in the coming weeks if something isn’t done.

This places the people of Gaza in the same category as the populations of Sudan (where 18 million are on the point of starvation), the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan, Haiti and Yemen.

However, whilst extreme weather events have caused droughts and crop failures in other famine-hit countries, the food crisis in Gaza is entirely man-made, caused by cynical and utterly deliberate actions to block access to those in urgent need.

A formal declaration of a famine by international relief agencies caries no mandatory obligations, but such a declaration would pressure other countries into showing commitment to assisting with the relief efforts that would swing into action. This would be a hefty commitment for the US in particular, so they can well do without adding Gaza to what looks like being a famine of unprecedented scale about to erupt in Sudan in particular.

It has been this fear that has forced a shift in the American position, with today’s US calls for an immediate ceasefire and negotiations over the remaining hostages held by Hamas.

Secretary of state Antony Blinken’s efforts in Israel to open a new path to dialogue may have been rebuffed, but it will have been noted that he spoke with the authority of his president. In his recent State of the Union annual address Joe Biden made it clear that the US intends to send aid to Gaza, adding that Israel “had a fundamental responsibility to protect innocent victims in Gaza” and reiterating his call for six-week long ceasefire. He also announced that the US would be forcing the issue by building a temporary pier in Gaza to receive large ships carrying food, water, medicine and temporary shelters.

By current polls, only a meagre 20% of US voters approve of Biden’s handling of the Gaza conflict. In something of a reiteration of the swing in public opinion as the Vietnam war dragged across the 1960s, it seems that most Americans vote for war on the promise of swift action and even swifter outcomes, but tire relatively quickly of protracted and a bloody conflicts, especially when they seem increasing blurred and have a costly impact on America’s tightly stretched fiscal resources.

Perhaps the US administration hs also been reflecting on the Berlin airlift of 1948, when during the course of a year allied air forces carried out more than 278,000 relief flights delivering some 2.3 million tonnes of provisions and other essential supplies in what was as much a humanitarian effort as a relief strategy for the desperate and starving people of Berlin.

The logistical challenges of 1948 called for unprecedented global co-operation and the overcoming of seemingly insurmountable political obstacles in the face of Soviet hostility.

As the human tragedy in Gaza continues to escalate, an equally extraordinary level of human effort and co-operation will be required to ameliorate the suffering in Gaza. Of the 30,000 lives lost already, 12,300 have been children and 8,400 women. Additionally, 60,000 pregnant women are struggling with malnutrition and according to the UN Gaza urgently needs at least 300 aid trucks daily right now to meet the urgent needs of its population.

The Red Cross also estimates that the entire 2.2 million population is experiencing food insecurity at crisis levels or above, with some families reportedly sharing just “one can of food every 48 hours”.

Meanwhile the western allies continue to grapple ineffectually with the problem as their cherished reputations as global guardians of human rights diminish in the eyes of the world.

Speaking to an Italian television station earlier this week, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, says that “everyone must do everything possible to put an end to this situation.”

“We have always had many problems of all kinds,” he continued, “and even the economic-financial situation has always been very fragile, but there has never been hunger before.”

“The weakness of the United States,” emphasised the Patriarch, “creates a great dilemma, because, until now, there has always been someone to put things in order. Now there is no longer anyone to play this role, and we have to do it ourselves. I don’t know if, how, or when this will be possible.

“It will be a difficult Easter,” Cardinal Pizzaballa concluded.

“I think of the loneliness of Jesus in Gethsemane, which is now shared by all of us.”

The Patriarch’s words were echoed by Father Gabriel Romanelli, parish priest of the Holy Family Catholic parish in Gaza, who spoke this week of the “extremely grave” situation in the Gaza Strip, likening the situation of Christians in the Strip to Christ on Calvary.

In an interview with SIR, an Italian Catholic news agency, Fr Romanelli said: “The situation continues to be extremely grave and worsens by the hour. Our Christians have faith and hope in the Essential, in Jesus Christ.

“They have been enduring relentless Calvary for months. You cannot imagine the pain we are experiencing and the desperation of the people,” he explained.

Fr Romanelli described the scene in the area surrounding the parish in Gaza City, with mountains of rubble, garbage, and burst sewers. The rain that continues to fall is a blessing on the one hand, but worsens the hygienic conditions as it causes high humidity, intensifying the smell of decomposed bodies that are still under the rubble.

Meanwhile, The UN Security Council is planning to hold another vote tomorrow on a draft resolution which has been put forward by seven elected members of the council – Algeria, Malta, Mozambique, Guyana, Slovenia, Sierra Leone and Switzerland – which demands an immediate ceasefire for the month of Ramadan, leading to a permanent and sustainable ceasefire. It also demands the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages, and emphasises the urgent need to expand the flow of humanitarian assistance to Gaza.

France has also said today that it is working on a longer-term solution focussed on achieving a political settlement to the crisis, which has led some to conclude that this appalling humanitarian crisis isn’t going to be resolved anytime soon.

As with so many situations where instability, oppression and human suffering breaks out in a significant manner, there is never any shortage of talk, negotiations and propositions. Yet sadly it is those very people who claim to have the intellectual and moral authority and commitment to govern who seem the most profoundly incapable of solving problems of governance and conflict when they arise.

In the face of such impotence we can only resort to prayer and the hope that God’s mercy will bring the suffering of the people of Gaza to an end before it’s too late.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic publisher and theologian