THERE are 18 mentions of the word “starvation” over the 11 pages through which South Africa returned to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on March 6, 2024.

“Palestinians in Gaza are no longer at ‘immediate risk of death by starvation’,” it says. South Africa states that “at least 15 Palestinian children – including babies – in Gaza have already died of starvation in the past week alone, with the actual numbers believed to be much higher”.

What happens when you starve to death? Medical researchers break starvation down into stages, whereby, if I’m understanding the journal articles correctly, and not sanitising the effects, the body begins to eat itself in the absence of food. It eats its sugar stores, it eats its fat stores, then it feeds on its muscle stores and devours the heart muscle.

It eats the proteins which are essential for the basic building blocks of life to function – the cells – and these then stop working. Hair loses its colour, skin flakes, extremities swell, the stomach will blow up like a balloon. It is usually not possible to eat enough in the final stages of starvation to recover.

Children are at much greater risk of starvation than adults, men than women. Children are smaller and have fewer stores to draw from. People who are starving become lethargic, living life mechanically, or in slow motion. Children stop doing the things children do. They stop playing. Their parents become hopeless as they starve, and cease to show signs of caring.

With numbers already in double figures and with an air, sea and land blockade, we can assume that in the next days, the numbers will rise exponentially and that already many are too malnourished, too starved, to be reached with the meagre supplies and medical assistance to hand.

Statements from the director general of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, that speak of “grim findings” in Gaza, with “severe levels of malnutrition, children dying of starvation, serious shortages of fuel, food and medical supplies, hospital buildings destroyed … The lack of food resulted in the deaths of 10 children.

"The lack of electricity poses a serious threat to patient care, especially in critical areas like the intensive care unit and the neonatal unit.”

The National:

Dr Tedros (above) was in Glasgow, at the University of Glasgow, last week to meet medical students, give a public lecture and receive an Honorary Doctorate of Science, during which time he paid tribute to his WHO colleague, a former student at University of Glasgow, Dima Alhaj, who was killed by the Israel Defence Forces in Gaza in November 2023.

The United Nations, on March 7, 2024, spoke in their press release of “starvation claiming a growing number of young lives”. They said that “one in six children under the age of two is acutely malnourished and media reports have indicated that at least 20 youngsters have died from starvation in recent days, including a 14-day-old baby”.

South Africa cited Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund, in its latest application to the ICJ: “Now, the child deaths we feared are here and are likely to rapidly increase unless the war ends and obstacles to humanitarian relief are immediately resolved…

“The sense of helplessness and despair among parents and doctors in realising that lifesaving aid, just a few kilometres away, is being kept out of reach, must be as unbearable, but worse still are the anguished cries of those babies slowly perishing under the world’s gaze. The lives of thousands more babies and children depend on urgent action being taken now.”

Any aid supplies that are getting into Gaza are subject to missile fire and bombardment. The Flour Massacre two weeks ago saw footage – verified by the BBC, among others – of tanks firing on people as they tried to reach an aid lorry. The latest casualty count, according to South Africa’s fresh application is at least 118.

It reads: “Israel is now massacring desperate, starving Palestinians seeking to obtain food for their slowly dying children. The so-called ‘flour massacre’ of February 29, 2024 – in which 118 Palestinians were killed and a further 760 injured – was the largest such massacre to date.

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“However, it forms part of an escalating pattern of fatal attacks by Israel on the Palestinian people it is deliberately starving, as they seek to access aid.”

In Tel Aviv, and on the Buchanan Street steps in Glasgow, protesters against the massacre held up bags of flour painted red.

With US planes dropping food packages that, according to images from Gaza, are out of date or miss, or wash up on the beach, and with this being the most inefficient mode of distributing humanitarian aid, we can conclude that the air drops are designed as theatre for those in donor states.

These are the same donor states who have yet to reinstate or are only now considering reinstating UNRWA funding – the funding for the UN agency responsible for assistance of all Palestinian refugees and 70% of Palestinians living in Gaza are refugees.

South Africa cites UNRWA director Philippe Lazzarini, in the fresh application: “Life is draining out of Gaza at alarming speed.”

As stated by UNRWA, “these deaths are man-made, predictable and entirely preventable. Gaza has become hell on earth. When will the world say ‘enough’?”

The Foreign Secretary was reported saying on March 7 that the decision to suspend UNRWA funding was “too hasty” – language which is not redolent of someone who understands the urgency required when his country is under an order from the ICJ to do everything possible to “prevent a plausible risk of genocide” and comply with the order.

The removal of funding to UNRWA is a scandal, coming immediately after the ICJ responded to South Africa’s initial application to institute provisional measures to prevent genocide by ordering that the State of Israel, by 16 votes to one, “shall take immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance to address the adverse conditions of life faced by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip”.

All those who are party as signatories to the “Genocide Convention” are bound by the orders of the ICJ.

In the past few days, we have seen several legal proceedings initiated against states who have continued to supply arms and cut UNRWA funding as potential accessories to genocide.

The International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice are busy.

As so it was that on Wednesday, March 6, South Africa showed the world again how serious it is about upholding the Genocide Convention, and upholding it in time to try to prevent “genocidal starvation”.

In its “respectful” request – and the practised courtesy of the application from the South Africa legal team is truly a thing of beauty – South Africa asks the court to make several more precise orders. Of note: “All Parties to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide must, forthwith, take all measures necessary to comply with all of their obligations under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.”

All parties means the UK. Unequivocally.

“The State of Israel shall take immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance to address famine and starvation and the adverse conditions of life faced by Palestinians in Gaza, by: “Immediately suspending its military operations in Gaza.

“Lifting its blockade of Gaza.

“Rescinding all other existing measures and practices that directly or indirectly have the effect of obstructing the access of Palestinians in Gaza to humanitarian assistance and basic services.

“Ensuring the provision of adequate and sufficient food, water, fuel, shelter, clothing, hygiene and sanitation requirements, alongside medical assistance, including medical supplies and support.”

These are what linguistics like myself call “speech acts,” utterances which do things, which change the quality of an environment, a mood, an atmosphere, which make things happen. In the rarefied atmosphere of the International Court of Justice, these words demand a response of the world’s highest court.

And the response is one which orders, without appeal, actions to prevent the plausible risk of genocide. We are lucky to have such a body to keep us safe from the risk of genocide, and to have South Africa making such an emergency representation, in which it asks for a response – “without a hearing”.

It goes on: “South Africa fears that this Application may be the last opportunity that this Court shall have to save the Palestinian people in Gaza already dying of starvation, and now ‘one step’ from famine.

“In the Bosnian Genocide case, the Court declined to order the additional provisional measures requested on July 27, 1993. Within two years, approximately 7336 Bosnians in the so-called ‘safe area’ of Srebrenica had been slaughtered, in what this Court retrospectively determined to have been a genocide.

“Here, South Africa respectfully calls on this Court to act again now – before it is too late – to do what is within its power to save Palestinians in Gaza from genocidal starvation.”

I read these words on March 6 after more than five months of daily messages from my friends and colleagues in Gaza. I’ve lost count of how many friends and their families have been killed by Israel Defence Forces. Grief and horror are now daily occurrences.

They must be borne for there is no turning away, no social media detox, there is just a small act of solidarity of witness bearing and being present to what needs to be said.

During times of genocide and ethnic cleansing, whole families will sleep in the same room or same space so that they might die together, in one another’s arms, perhaps so that the body of a small child might survive under the body of a parent or older sibling.

Starvation has long been used as a weapon of war, the horrors in Tigray over the past two years include the loss of many to starvation and starvation-related disease. The WHO says it has never known malnutrition rates in children rise so acutely so quickly.

One of my friends in Gaza has a young grandson, born within 10 days of my own. We message their smiles. The difference in the images is heart-wrenching. We no longer speak of the horror, preferring instead to speak in the morning and the evening of light, making a small speech act of hope that is nothing to do with war, with our greetings. But bodies are weak and ailing, starved.

Other colleagues are desperate, looking for any way out, but with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office only allowing visas for those in Gaza who have six months on a UK visa, and children or a spouse in the UK, those who could leave to come here are precious few, if any.

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They have big hearts and I try not to flinch as I think of first their children, and then the men, and finally the women devouring their own hearts if the world cannot find a way to prevent this urgent risk of genocidal starvation.

The South African application brings a degree of solace. Its reason, the careful language acts on me too. I am in awe of the South African legal team and what the words convey. The sheer urgency and precision, the legal and rhetorical brilliance. I am not a lawyer, though I read a good deal of law, but I know words and their luminescence.

I return to the 18 references to starvation, to the 11 pages, and feel a strange and deep thanksgiving for the practised courtesy of words: “This Court”


“Genocidal starvation”

“Then perilous”

“Now so terrifying”

“As to be”


“Must come”

“To an immediate halt”

I share these words with my friends in Gaza.

“Salam and good morning to the spring of humanity,” they reply.

Alison Phipps is Unesco Chair for Refugee Integration through Languages and Arts at the University of Glasgow. She has worked with Palestinian colleagues in the Gaza Strip for 15 years. They are starving to death.