Gaza Strip hurtling towards famine, warns UN, as spectre of wider war looms

Iran-backed Houthis say they will continue attacks on international shipping in Red Sea following US missile strike on radar station in Yemen

The twin spectres of a widening regional war and intensified suffering of civilians loomed over the Middle East on Saturday, as Iran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen threatened to respond to US air strikes, and a senior United Nations official warned of a “horrific” humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip that he said was hurtling toward famine.

A US missile strike, launched from a warship in the Red Sea, hit a radar station outside the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, early on Saturday. The solitary strike came about 24 hours after a much wider barrage of US-led strikes against nearly 30 sites in northern and western Yemen that were intended to deter Houthi attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

Houthi officials tried to brush off the latest assault, saying it would have little impact on their ability to continue those attacks. Their stated goal is to punish Israel for blocking humanitarian aid in to Gaza – although Yemeni analysts say the crisis also presents the Houthis with a welcome distraction from rising criticism at home.

The greater risk is probably borne by ordinary Yemenis, whose impoverished nation has been crushed by years of civil war and who now face a high-stakes confrontation that imperils a fragile 20-month truce.


About 21 million Yemenis, or two-thirds of the population, rely on aid to survive, in what the United Nations has called one of the world’s worst humanitarian calamities – a dubious distinction now shared by Gaza.

In northern Gaza, where a crippling three-month Israeli barrage has hit hardest, corpses are left in the road and starving residents stop aid trucks “in search of anything they can get to survive”, Martin Griffiths, the top UN aid official, told the UN Security Council on Friday. Saying that the risk of famine in Gaza was “growing by the day”, he blamed Israel for repeated delays and denials of permission to humanitarian convoys bringing aid to the area.

Since January 1st, just three of 21 planned convoys intended for northern Gaza, carrying food, medicine and other essential supplies, have received Israeli permission to enter the area, a UN spokesperson said on Thursday. More supplies have been distributed in southern Gaza, near the two border crossings that are open during limited hours, but aid workers say vastly more than that is needed to meaningfully help Palestinians.

Qatar is mediating talks over a proposal for Israel to allow more medicines into Gaza in exchange for prescription medicines being sent to Israeli hostages held by Hamas, officials have said.

Famine experts say the proportion of Gaza residents at risk of famine is greater than anywhere since a UN-affiliated body began measuring extreme hunger 20 years ago. Scholars say it has been generations since the world has seen food deprivation on such a scale in war.

The arrival of bitterly cold winter weather has exacerbated the struggle to survive, Mr Griffiths said. Much of Gaza’s population has jammed into overcrowded, deteriorating shelters in the south, with limited access to clean water and where aid workers warn that disease is spreading fast.

In response to questions, Israel’s government on Friday denied it was obstructing aid, saying its permission was contingent on the security situation, the security of its troops and its efforts to prevent supplies from “falling into the hands” of Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls Gaza. Israel launched its assault on Gaza after the October 7th Hamas-led attack in which Israeli officials say at least 1,200 people were killed and another 240 were taken back to Gaza as hostages.

Since then, Israeli attacks, often using US-supplied bombs, have killed more than 23,000 people in Gaza, according to Gaza health authorities. At least 1.9 million people, or 85 per cent of the population, have been forced from their homes, according to the UN.

Despite growing global criticism, and calls from the Biden administration to take greater care, the pace of Israeli strikes has not relented.

The Israeli bombardment is intensifying even in areas where Palestinians had been ordered to flee for their own safety, Mr Griffiths said.

A strike on Friday on a home in Rafah, near the southernmost tip of Gaza, killed 10 people including several children, Palestinian media reported. At least 700,000 Palestinians have fled to the area around Rafah, along the border with Egypt, hoping for safety. Even there, it is elusive.

“There is no safe place in Gaza,” Mr Griffiths said. “Dignified human life is a near-impossibility.”

Large protests calling for an end to the Israeli assault on Gaza, tied to the 100th day of the war, took place across the globe on Saturday in cities including Dublin; London; Washington, DC; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and Jakarta, Indonesia.

In Israel, however, the focus was on the 136 hostages believed to still be held in Gaza. Families and supporters of the people taken captive on October 7th planned to hold an overnight vigil in Tel Aviv on Saturday night. Among the hostages are about a dozen people in their 70s and 80s and a one-year-old. Frustrated relatives have become increasingly vocal in their criticism of Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s efforts to free them.

Like Hamas in Gaza and Hizbullah in Lebanon, the Houthis have been supported, funded and armed by Iran for many years. US officials say Iran provided the intelligence used by the Houthis to target ships 28 times in the Red Sea since mid-November, causing more than 2,000 other ships to divert to a much longer route around Africa.

Many Yemen experts were sceptical that this round of US strikes would force the Houthis to back down, and said the group could even be strengthened. Since 2014, the Houthis have endured heavy bombardment by Saudi warplanes armed by the US, only to emerge as the de facto government in northern Yemen.

A confrontation with the US strengthens the Houthis’ ties to Iran, plays to popular sympathies with Palestinians and could help to quell dissent, experts say. As a shaky peace has taken root in Yemen in the past 18 months, their economic failures have become more evident, and internal opposition has grown.

The Houthis, for their part, warned that more assaults on Red Sea shipping were coming, as well as a more forceful response to the US.

“Washington will deeply regret its provocative practices in the Red and Arabian Seas, as will everyone who gets involved with them,” Hezam al-Asad, a member of the Houthi political bureau, said in a phone interview after the latest US strike.

The only way for the United States to stop Houthi attacks on shipping, he said, was “an end to the war in Gaza”.

– This article originally appeared in the New York Times.