Israel’s alleged past restrictions on Gaza food supplies loom over deaths of World Central Kitchen aid workers

Starvation may well be as grave a danger in Gaza as the bombs. But the killing on Monday of seven aid workers demonstrates how the two lethalities can combine to devastating effect. The Israeli government called the World Central Kitchen“a tragedy.” But as the food aid group—which had rushed into Israel to feed people there after Oct. 7—announced that safety concerns were forcing it to suspend, advocates saw additional evidence that Israel is restricting access to food in an enclave where 1.1 million people depend on it.

“Israel gives itself license to restrict access to basic necessities, using aid as a tool of war,” says Miriam Marmur, advocacy director of Gisha, an Israeli NGO focused on access to Gaza. “It may be that for some Israeli officials, the starvation we’re [now] seeing was never the goal. But within the culture of deep disregard for Palestinian lives, and Israel’s ongoing impunity, it’s become a spiraling disaster.”

A spokesperson for the Israeli military office that oversees food deliveries to Gaza did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement, government spokesman Avi Hyman said, “Where there is hunger in Gaza, it is hunger orchestrated by Hamas. … Today and every day, we are filling Gaza with aid by land, air, and sea.”

What’s not in dispute is the role food has long played in the conflict.

The Gaza Strip, where more than 2 million Palestinians live in an area about twice the size of Washington, D.C., has always relied on imports. The mechanics have changed with the circumstances—from 1948 to 1967, Gaza was controlled by Egypt; following the Six-Day War, Israel occupied the area—but only in 2007 did food become a serious controversy, two years after Israel withdrew its troops and settlers. That was when the militant group Hamas took power and an alarmed Israel imposed a”blockade” on an area that it nonetheless continued to supply with power and water, and, by most readings of international law, remained responsible for.

At that point, almost all food, fuel, and other imports moved by truck through checkpoints controlled by Israel. There were tunnels under the Egyptian border to bring goods, and contraband, but Israel’s grip on Gaza’s food supply was such that it could constrict the flow when rockets were launched into Israel, and assure the world that Gazans were still eating amid concerns that aid was being diverted by Hamas.

Marmur’s group 12 years ago uncovered evidence that from 2007 to 2010 Israel deliberately kept food deliveries into Gaza to “minimal subsistence” levels, for a population that then numbered 1.5 million. “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger,” a senior Israeli official at the time, Dov Weisglass, was famously quoted as saying.

“It was right after the pullout from Gaza when unfortunately, the firing of missiles [into Israel] continued,” Weisglass told TIME on March 28. He emphasized that the policy has no relevance to the current situation in Gaza, though some possible parallels are evident enough: What finally prompted Israel to ease the blockade was the international outcry over IDF commandos killing 10 Turkish activists trying to bring aid and cement to Gaza aboard the Mavi Marmara in May 2010.

Two days after Oct. 7, Israel Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced a “closure on the Gaza Strip. There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel; everything is closed. We are fighting human animals, and we are acting accordingly.” Six months later, some 150,000 Palestinians have been pushed from their homes, most of which have been destroyed. The 300,000 Palestinians who are most at risk of starvation are living in Gaza’s northern half—the area that Israeli forces want cleared. “It appears that there has been an attempt by Israel to starve out the civilian population from the north of Gaza, to create conditions so dire that civilians are forced to go south to feed themselves, thus making it easier for Israel to control that area,” Marmur argues, adding that the effort may not flow from the intentions of individual officers, but from an approach demonstrated by the blockade.

The latest report assembled by leading international and local aid groups, known as Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, says that half of Gaza’s population of 2.2 million have exhausted their food supply and face famine. “People in Gaza are starving to death right now,” Cindy McCain, head of the U.N.’s World Food Program, said on March 18. “The speed at which this man-made hunger and malnutrition crisis has ripped through Gaza is terrifying.”

Major international aid organizations wrote in a letter to the White House on March 26 that “humanitarian assistance has been consistently and arbitrarily denied, restricted, and impeded by the Israeli authorities.” Signed by CARE, Save the Children USA, Doctors Without Borders, International Rescue Committee, and 17 other aid groups, the letter argues that Israel was violating a requirement that recipients of U.S. military aid must follow international law and facilitate humanitarian assistance. Inside Israel, human rights groups made a similar plea to the Supreme Court,