Hunger: Survivors of relentless Gaza bombardment fear silent killer

More than two months into the conflict, Palestinians forage for vegetables in abandoned fields

Palestinian children collect food at a donation point provided by a charity group in the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah. AFP
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Abu Muhammad Wadi has survived more than two months of Israel’s massive bombing campaign in Gaza, but merely avoiding the bombs does not ensure survival.

Palestinians in Gaza say a silent killer – hunger – stalks survivors of the fighting as they huddle in makeshift shelters or abandoned buildings amid the noise of war.

“Is it that breath of air that classifies us as living? Because this – this is not living,” exclaims the internally displaced 72-year-old.

He had returned to the south of Khan Younis, the epicentre of intensive Israeli military operations for more than a week, after failing for days to secure a safe place in Rafah for his wife and two sons.

For two nights in a row, they have slept in their small car in Rafah, taking shelter from the chilly nights and rain.

Elsewhere in the crowded enclave, at least 17,000 people have died over the course of about two months of intensive bombing.

In Khan Younis, his family found a tiny room with no water tank or bathroom, not far from Israeli tanks. Exhausted, they had had enough of moving around, having been forced to leave their home in Gaza city in the early days of the war and experiencing repeated displacements ever since.

Two months of indiscriminate bombing of Gaza have displaced about two million people, many of whom have been forced to move twice or more, as parts of the enclave described by Israeli forces as safe zones came under attack.

With nowhere safe amid wide-scale destruction, the internally displaced are left with few options.

Once a university professor, Abu Muhammad said he chose the room in Khan Younis over heading to Al Mawasi – an overcrowded, windswept area declared a safe zone – as it is devoid of any basic services and surrounded by sand dunes, which makes entering a moving around difficult in his rundown car.

“It’s also by the sea, which means lower temperatures, and we’ve got nothing to keep us warm,” he explained.

‘Lost the will to adapt’

Despite the grave risks of staying in bigger cities like Khan Younis, which Israeli forces have invaded, many people chose to stay in the hope of receiving food, blankets, mattresses, clean water and other necessities from the UN's Palestinian refugee agency and other barely operating relief organisations.

That said, the numbers of Gazans arriving to Al Mawasi are on the rise, as more and more are forcibly displaced from outlying villages, including Bani Suhaila, New Abasan, Abasan Al Kabira, Khuza’a, to the east of Khan Younis, and the town of Al Qarara to the north.

“I just don’t know where to go any more,” Abu Muhammad told The National.

“We’re waiting for death, but in reality we feel that we’re dead because there is nothing that resembles an ordinary life in this.

“We have lost the will to adapt to the reality of displacement. It’s too humiliating, too undignified.”

In a statement made on December 7 to mark two months since Israel began its war on Gaza in response to a Hamas attack that killed 1,200 people, UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said that “the message that we have been giving – we, here, being the humanitarian community, and I represent the humanitarian community writ large, not just the United Nations – is that we do not have a humanitarian operation in southern Gaza that can be called by that name any more”.

“That the pace of the military assault in southern Gaza is a repeat of the assault in northern Gaza,” he added.

“That it has made no place safe for civilians in southern Gaza, which had been a cornerstone of the humanitarian plan to protect civilians and thus to provide aid to them.

“But without places of safety, that plan is in tatters.”

‘Hunger is the infidel’

Unable to find a foothold in any of the UNRWA shelters or the dozens of other unregistered refugee shelters, Ibrahim Fayyad, 52, set up a small tent right outside a UN training centre west of Khan Younis.

Mr Fayyad shares the tent – which he bought for about $1,000 – with his own family as well as his parents and his brother's family.

They have been forced to move several times over the past 50 days.

“[The tent] offers us neither protection from the bombs, nor the rain and wind,” he told The National.

“It’s a basic one: a couple of wooden poles with extended fabric. It can be blown away with a strong gust of wind.”

Having hoped that being close to UNRWA’s main shelter would at least offer them some basic essentials, Mr Fayyad said that this is not the case.

“We have no bread and can’t get hold of flour. We live on dates and canned food,” he said. Mr Fayyad added that obtaining drinking water is near impossible.

The situation for those displaced on the peripheries of Gaza is even more dire, as they are beyond the reach of aid or medical help, in addition to being far from the city centre where a few manage to buy essentials, albeit at extremely high prices.

Mahmoud Al Astal, who was displaced with his extended family in the agricultural fields of Al Mawasi a week ago, is pushing his five children to eat raw vegetables from the fields. With limited bread, he said they are only able to get partially full.

“We have some flour and we’ve divided it so that we each get a loaf of bread a day. We bake it using firewood, like we don’t live in this day and age,” he said.

He blamed UNRWA for “taking its time in distributing the flour rations, until it could no longer do that because of the Israeli ground offensive, leaving us without food”.

Fearing widespread starvation in areas far from city’s registered shelters, he hopes international and local relief institutions will “do something or else more displaced people will take to breaking into aid trucks and warehouses by force to meet their urgent need for the simplest things”.

“There’s an Arabic proverb that says ‘hunger is the infidel', in that it forces people to act outside their nature and morals,” he said.

“We’re experiencing this now.”

This article is published in collaboration with Egab.

Updated: December 09, 2023, 7:01 AM