The U.S. believes famine is underway in Gaza, U.S. Agency for International Development administrator Samantha Power said on Wednesday ― a striking admission prompted by questioning over a HuffPost story revealing USAID officials privately reached that conclusion last week.

Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) asked Power during a congressional hearing about HuffPost’s April 2 story on a USAID cable that referred to famine in northern Gaza without caveats and argued “even in the best-case scenario the threshold to support a Famine determination has likely already been crossed.”

“Famine is already occurring there?” Castro asked. Power responded: “Yes.”

Her comment is the Biden administration’s most prominent public acknowledgement of the severity of the crisis among Palestinians in Gaza amid the six-month U.S.-backed Israeli offensive in the strip. USAID had previously deemed famine “imminent.”

The outbreak of famine is a major development in the conflict. Humanitarian experts say that degree of food scarcity can quickly take on its own momentum, requiring huge efforts to combat it, while worsening other crises like health problems and incurring a major human toll before it can be stamped out. In the USAID cable obtained by HuffPost, officials wrote that the combination of “starvation, malnutrition and disease” would between mid-March and late May kill dozens of children in Gaza who are younger than 5 years old.

“Many of the coping strategies employed by people in Gaza will have long-term effects on the nutritional status and future livelihoods of those who survive the crisis,” the government experts added.

The USAID staff extensively described in the cable how Israeli limits on food and other vital goods for Gaza are driving mass hunger.

The situation could also have dire legal implications for Israel and the U.S. as they continue the mission that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched against Hamas, the Gaza-based Palestinian militant group, after a shock Hamas-led attack on Israel on Oct. 7. The International Court of Justice ― the top court of the United Nations ― is investigating whether the Israeli operation constitutes a genocide against Palestinians and has repeatedly ordered Israel to take new steps to let more humanitarian aid into Gaza and prevent mass suffering there. Israel controls nearly all crossings into the enclave, most of which it has yet to open, and tightly restricts supplies that can enter it and to what extent relief organizations can function there.

During her Wednesday comments to Congress, Power, herself a chronicler of genocide, notably repeatedly declined to answer if Israel’s actions constitute that war crime.

After an Israeli strike killed aid workers with the World Central Kitchen nonprofit last week, President Joe Biden has pushed Israel to do more to help Palestinians in Gaza. “Israel has not done enough to protect aid workers trying to deliver desperately needed help to civilians … The United States will continue to do all we can to deliver humanitarian assistance to Palestinian civilians in Gaza, through all available means. I will continue to press Israel to do more to facilitate that aid,” Biden said in a statement after the attack.

Israel responded by opening one of its crossings in Gaza and increasing the number of aid trucks allowed in.

Yet experts say major additional steps are still needed.

“It’s really striking that after months of denying that they were obstructing aid, when President Biden really laid down the line with Prime Minister Netanyahu, suddenly they found a bunch of new ways to unblock aid,” Jeremy Konyndyk, the president of the charity Refugees International and a former Biden administration official, recently told Al Jazeera. “Without a cease-fire, it will not be possible for aid groups to put together the kind of anti-famine operation that Gaza now requires.”


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