Israel Has a Long History of Trying to Starve Gaza

Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza has created a disastrous famine in the enclave. But it’s not the first time Israel has tried to starve Palestinians in Gaza — Israeli government documents suggest it was explicit policy from 2007 to 2010.

Displaced Palestinian children carry rations of red lentil soup, distributed by volunteers in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 18, 2024. (Said Khatib / AFP via Getty Images)

“In order to allow for a basic fabric of life in the Gaza Strip, the deputy defense minister approved allowing 106 trucks carrying basic humanitarian products into the Gaza Strip.”

That statement could be one of countless similar claims made by the Israeli government since the start of Israel’s ongoing genocide in Gaza — but it is in fact from a 2008 presentation. The Israeli Ministry of Defense presentation “Food Consumption in the Gaza Strip — Red Lines” details the amount of food consumed, produced, and distributed throughout Gaza. It was prepared to assist the Israeli government in the professed goal of: limiting the entry of food into Gaza.

Although the Israeli Ministry of Defense claimed that “Red Lines,” as the presentation is often referred to, was only a draft and never “used as a basis for implementing civilian policy toward the Gaza Strip,” it appears to have been in force from 2007 to 2010. When the presentation was brought to light years later, it only confirmed what Palestinians in Gaza had already known — that Israel was trying to starve them.

“The Policy Was to Wage Economic Warfare”

In 2007, in response to Hamas sweeping Palestinian elections and wresting control of Gaza from its political rivals, the Israeli government began its ongoing blockade of the Strip. While the primary focus of the blockade was to reduce the supply of fuel and electricity in Gaza, as well as restrict the movement of people in and out of the Strip, food was also an Israeli preoccupation, as evident from “Red Lines.” The presentation estimates the amounts of various foodstuffs — flour, vegetables, milk, and so on — necessary to feed the population of Gaza, as compared to what was being produced within the enclave and brought in for distribution through the handful of crossings in the militarized border constructed by Israel around the territory.

“The official goal of the policy was to wage economic warfare,” says Shai Grunberg, spokesperson for the Gisha Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, an Israeli human rights organization. Gisha published “Red Lines” in 2012, following a three-year legal campaign against the Israeli Ministry of Defense, which had sought to prevent publication of the presentation.

Although the ostensible purpose of “Red Lines” was to identify the absolute minimum amount of food necessary to be let into Gaza to avoid malnutrition — 106 trucks a day — analysis conducted by Gisha reveals that this line was in reality the upper threshold for nearly the first three years of the Israeli blockade. From the start of the blockade in September of 2007 to its relative easing in July of 2010, the number of daily trucks allowed by Israel into Gaza reached the amount prescribed in the presentation only for a month or so in March of 2009. For the rest of the duration, the number of trucks fell well below, plummeting close to zero in November of 2008.

Despite Israeli policy limiting food from entering Gaza, there was no famine in the territory from 2007 to 2010. Gisha attributes the avoidance of widespread malnutrition to both the stocks maintained by merchants in Gaza and the distribution of aid by humanitarian organizations.

Hamas was also able to breach the blockade in January of 2008, following months of secretly using acetylene torches to cut through sections of wall on the border with Egypt, before finally demolishing them with explosives. The weeklong breach allowed Palestinians access to Egypt, where they were able to purchase and return to Gaza with enough food to last three months, according to the Associated Press.

In May of 2010, following the Gaza flotilla raid in which the Israeli military killed ten activists in the course of raiding six civilian ships traveling from Turkey to Gaza with humanitarian aid and reconstruction supplies, Israel finally eased its blockade of the enclave. While Gisha’s analysis confirms that the number of trucks allowed into Gaza by Israel exceeded 106 following July of 2010, the organization is careful to distinguish the easing of the blockade from its lifting altogether.

“Even after it stopped limiting entry of food, Israel continued to impose restrictions on movement of people and goods that hindered development of Gaza’s economy and of civilian infrastructure, led to de-development and greatly increased poverty in the Strip, therefore undermining food security in other ways,” says Grunberg. “As a result, even before October 7, more than 80 percent of Gaza’s population relied on humanitarian aid to meet basic needs.”

“New Extremes Post–October 7”

If Israel had tried to weaponize food as a form of economic warfare from 2007 to 2010, it has undoubtedly weaponized it as part of a policy of total war since October 7. The ongoing Israeli genocide in Gaza — which has already claimed the lives of at least thirty-three thousand Palestinians, including more than thirteen thousand children and eighty-four hundred women, according to Al Jazeera — exhibits many of the characteristics of the previous blockade, only this time with the intention of creating a famine.

Gisha describes the litany of acts by Israel that have spread starvation throughout Gaza: bombardments and ground operations by the Israeli military decimating food production and distribution; severe limitations on imports, including the closure of all but two border crossing and the denial of access to humanitarian staff; and its refusal to disperse Israeli protests at those remaining crossings, while actively targeting the Palestinian police escorts of humanitarian aid convoys.

“Israel’s abuse of its control over movement and access has been taken to new extremes post–October 7,” says Grunberg, “including as a result of its decisions to block the supply of electricity, to significantly limit the supply of water and fuel, and the fact that it continues to restrict entry and distribution of aid, especially its distribution to the north.”

Such actions by the Israeli government led Gisha and four other Israeli human rights organizations to file a petition earlier this month with Israel’s High Court, accusing the government of preventing food and other humanitarian aid from reaching Gaza. The petition asks the court to order the government to allow all humanitarian aid, equipment, and staff access to the entirety of Gaza through additional border crossings. It pointedly rejects Israel’s claims that it is not impeding aid and notes the inadequacy of measures by other nations, like the United States, that are conducting air drops or attempting to deliver aid by sea. Israel’s High Court is set to hear the petition on April 3.

“The situation on the ground suggests that Israel is, [among other things], employing collective punishment to a point that may amount to starvation as a weapon of war,” the petition states. “The fact that children have died and continued to die in the north of Gaza as a result of malnutrition should have shaken the respondents, the Israeli public and the world at large to their foundations.”