Gazans set up makeshift stalls to serve displaced Palestinians in crowded shelters

Thousands of displaced people are struggling to earn money in southern Gaza

Mohammed Ramadan’s falafel cart, set up near shelters for displaced Palestinians in Gaza, has become a popular spot. Mohamed Solaimane for The National
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In a corner of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency's (UNRWA’s) training centre in Khan Younis, southern Gaza, Bassam Qaffa uses large sheets of fabric to divide his makeshift barber shop from its overcrowded surroundings.

In the middle he places a metal chair, a small table and a number of basic tools to serve a queue of customers waiting to get groomed.

“This is a message to the displaced and the residents that life goes on in more than one way,” said Hassan Farrani, one of those in the queue, who has been displaced from Gaza city’s Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood.

Displaced Palestinians are scrambling to earn money, while trying to adjust to their new reality.

A month of displacement has dried up Bassam's savings. He needed to find work urgently to provide for his wife and three children.

“My children were asking for food and clothes daily and I could not buy any because I didn’t have any money. After I start working again, I hope to provide their basic needs so that they don’t go hungry or cold,” he said.

Many have lost their homes, belongings and businesses because of Israeli shelling of their hometowns.

Bassam is one of about 1.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Gaza, of whom an estimated 214,000 have fled Israel's aerial attacks in northern Gaza Strip for Khan Younis in the south.

“I was hoping the war would not last long and I could return to Beit Lahia to rebuild my shop, which was destroyed in the war,” the 30 year old said.

The Khan Younis Training Centre alone hosts more than 22,000 IDPs, according to the UN's Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), with less than two square metres of space per person and each toilet shared by at least 600 people.

As these shelters take on a life of their own, skilled workers such as Bassam, who owned a barbershop in Beit Lahia in northern Gaza, have begun setting up stalls or finding creative alternatives to make an income, such as mobile phone maintenance services or transporting passengers in animal-driven carts.

Khan Younis residents have also benefited from the influx of IDPs opening businesses in the vicinity of shelters.

Greeting his customers with a soft smile, Bassam teases his regulars from Beit Lahia with jokes of “I will remain your barber wherever you are displaced to”.

Makeshift stalls

The stalls have formed a bazaar-like market, selling vegetables, home appliances, bed covers, second-hand clothes, water and wood.

Some displaced families opt to sell basic items provided by UNRWA so they can buy other essentials.

It is no longer possible to stay without work because life is demanding and the family’s needs are endless
Ali Al Dabba, displaced Palestinian

At the entrance to UNRWA's main shelter centre, Ali Al Dabba has set up a grocery stall, displaying on a table a few brands of biscuits, cooking oil, water, milk powder and other merchandise he bought from displaced families.

Each morning, the displaced Gaza city resident tours tents and UNRWA facilities to buy various items at a reasonable price, hoping to make a 20-shekel ($5.12) profit per day to support his family of 11.

“It is no longer possible to stay without work because life is demanding and the family’s needs are endless,” Mr Al Dabba said.

Even before the current Israel-Gaza war, the enclave was suffered from a financial crisis, in basic social services and infrastructure, due to a 13-year sea, land and air blockade imposed by Israel.

In August, the World Food Programme reported that much of the population of the Gaza Strip was suffering from poverty and food insecurity.

On a main street near some shelters, a long line of customers starts forming around Mohammed Ramadan’s falafel cart. He quickly fills paper cones with the freshly-fried falafel, as his friends work tirelessly to fry more.

Pleased to find the popular Palestinian street food while the war rages on, customers wait patiently.

Mr Ramadan, 30, tries to tend to the long queues of customers as quickly as possible, as it starts to rain.

He divides the falafel carefully to make sure there is enough for everyone.

“It is not possible to prepare great quantities due to a shortage in ingredients in the market – fava beans and hummus – and to find a place with electricity for a mixer to blend them,” he told The National.

While selling falafel is the main source of income for Mr Ramadan and his family, he is happy to feed other displaced Palestinians.

“There aren't other falafel vendors around the shelters or even in residential neighbourhoods due to power cuts – and cooking gas has run out,” Mr Ramadan said.

According to OCHA, Gaza’s only mill has ceased operations due to lack of electricity and fuel as a result of the Israeli-imposed siege.

Eleven bakeries in southern Gaza have been destroyed since October 7. People queue for long hours outside bakeries that are still standing, where there is always danger of more air strikes.

Despite the hardships of displacement and war, Palestinians in Khan Younis say they welcome any semblance of normality returning to daily life.

This article was produced in collaboration with Egab

Updated: November 18, 2023, 4:15 AM