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Famine 'quite possibly' in some areas of north Gaza, US official says

Palestinians fleeing north Gaza after Israeli troops raided Al Shifa hospital, move southward, in the central Gaza Strip

By Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Famine is quite possibly present in parts of the northern Gaza Strip, a senior U.S. State Department official said on Friday, adding that an obstacle to getting more aid to Palestinians was a scarcity of trucks in the enclave under Israeli siege.

The United Nations has warned of a looming famine and complained of obstacles to getting aid in and distributing it throughout Gaza. The U.S. also says famine is imminent, but the official on Friday told Reuters it might already be present.

"While we can say with confidence that famine is a significant risk in the south and center but not present, in the north it is both a risk and quite possibly is present in at least some areas," the official said on condition of anonymity.

The U.N.-backed global authority on food security warned earlier this month that famine was likely to occur by May in northern Gaza and could spread across the enclave of 2.3 million people by July.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric on Wednesday described "tremendous challenges" to distributing aid, including a "lack of security, lack of cooperation with the Israeli authorities, lack of insufficient number of trucks, not enough fuel."

Israeli officials say they have increased aid access to Gaza, are not responsible for delays and that the aid delivery inside Gaza is the responsibility of the U.N. and humanitarian agencies. Israel has also accused Hamas of stealing aid.

The State Department official said one of the biggest issues limiting aid distribution was a scarcity of trucks inside Gaza and that Washington would work to help acquire or help the U.N. acquire additional trucks.

"They're just about at the limit right now. There aren't additional trucks in Gaza to be loaded from Kerem Shalom or Rafah or Gate 96 with food," the official said, referring to various border crossings into the enclave.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says it has more than 200 trucks for aid delivery within Gaza, including some which are heavily damaged but still operable. But ultimately the U.N. says not enough aid is getting into Gaza.

The State Department official said that in the past week there was an average of 250 aid trucks a day entering Gaza, but more were needed. The official said the U.S. was working to help get more aid regularly through Gate 96, a new entry point to reach north Gaza, citing a lack of vetted drivers.

He said that separately Israel had facilitated some 350-400 trucks of privately contracted humanitarian aid to northern Gaza over the past three or four weeks.

The war erupted on Oct. 7 after Hamas militants attacked Israel and killed 1,200 people and seized 253 hostages, according to Israeli tallies. Israel has retaliated by launching an air and ground assault on Hamas in the Gaza Strip that has killed more than 32,000 people, health authorities in Gaza say.

The United States has warned Israel against expanding its military operation into the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where over a million Palestinians are sheltering, without a plan to protect civilians. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to ensure a civilian evacuation and humanitarian aid.

The U.S. has been briefed "on some aspects" of the humanitarian plan, the State Department official said, but it has yet to see a comprehensive one.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Howard Goller)