Biden’s top aid official says famine is already underway in Gaza

President Joe Biden’s top aid official said that famine is already underway in northern Gaza, as global aid agencies warn that more than 2 million Palestinians face an urgent hunger crisis amid Israel’s ongoing military campaign.

Samantha Power, head of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), is the first official in the Biden administration to make the declaration.

Her comments came during a congressional hearing on Wednesday, when she was asked whether famine was “plausible or likely” in Gaza.

She pointed to assessments from the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification initiative, or IPC, which reported imminent risk of famine and “catastrophic” food insecurity.

“Do you think it is plausible or likely that parts of Gaza, and in particular northern Gaza, are already experiencing famine?” asked Democratic US Rep Joaquin Castro.

“Well, the methodology that the IPC used is one that we had our experts scrub, it’s one that’s relied upon in other settings, and that is their assessment, and we believe that assessment is credible,” she added.

“So famine is already occurring there?” Mr Castro asked.

“That is – yes,” she replied.

Asked about Ms Power’s comments, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Thursday that the IPC report “indicates that famine is imminent in Gaza.”

“We are certainly deeply concerned about these reports, and so we’ve been working around the clock to get more of that aid into Gaza,” she said.

She said there has been “some promise” of increased aid into Gaza following the president’s calls for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “announce and implement a series of specific, concrete, measurable steps to address humanitarian suffering.”

The recent movement of 1,000 aid trucks into Gaza is “good progress, but it’s still not enough and we hope to see the progress continue and accelerate,” she added.

But pressed by The Independent on Thursday, the White House was unable to answer definitively why – despite months of warnings from aid groups and other agencies that famine was imminent – the president has refused to use his significant leverage to push Israel to admit more desperately needed aid into the region.

“The president has been working around the clock, so I take offence to what you’re saying, because it isn’t true,” Ms Jean-Pierre said. “The president has been working on this hostage deal for months now. … And that is a way to make sure that there’s a temporary ceasefire that could hopefully lead to something longer, get those hostages home, and get humanitarian aid.”

USAID Administrator Samantha Power meets with members of the Egyptian Red Crescent and other officials as foreign aid intended for Gaza is delivered at El Arish International Airport on 5 December, 2023. (Getty Images)
USAID Administrator Samantha Power meets with members of the Egyptian Red Crescent and other officials as foreign aid intended for Gaza is delivered at El Arish International Airport on 5 December, 2023. (Getty Images)

During her testimony on Wednesday, Ms Power said he risk of severe malnutrition among children in Gaza has become “markedly worse” after Hamas attacks on October 7 and Israel’s retaliatory strikes that have killed more than 33,000 Palestinians.

“In northern Gaza, the rate of malnutrition prior to October 7 was almost zero, and it is now one in three kids,” she said. “In terms of actual severe acute malnutrition for [children under 5 years old], that rate was 16 per cent in January and became 30 per cent in February. We’re awaiting the March numbers, but we expect it to continue.”

Jeremy Konyndyk, who led USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance for three years and worked on famine prevention in Yemen and South Sudan, told The Independent last month that famine was likely inevitable unless the US pressured Israel to allow aid groups “complete access” into Gaza.

”Just based on the other circumstances where I’ve worked on famine relief operations, it’s very hard for me to see how you could avert famine now,” he told The Independent. “With the humanitarian footprint that currently exists, you would need a total change. You would need complete access through the territory. You would need a level of security that is hard to envision without a ceasefire.”

As Israel’s closest ally and the recipient of billions of dollars of American military aid each year, the US is the only country with enough leverage to pressure Israel to allow aid into Gaza, according to Mr Konyndyk.

Ms Power’s testimony follows a report byHuffPost that her agency sent warnings to the White House National Security Council that famine was underway in parts of Gaza, while dissent memos from US State Department staff have flooded the agency.

Earlier this year, Ms Power was publicly criticized by the agency’s current and former employees who urged her to speak out against US support for Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.

Ms Power – who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide – was confronted during her unrelated remarks on climate change in Washington DC in February.

During a question-answer segment after Ms Power’s remarks, Hannah Funk, who identified herself as a contract specialist at USAID, told her: “The US-funded genocide in Gaza has really left us unable to be more of a leader in climate change and all the other development in humanitarian issues those of us in USAID care so much about. How are you leading us to reckon with and overcome this hypocrisy?”