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Umm Ibrahim was running out of stories and tricks to distract her two younger children from their hunger while her older son fetched food from a charity kitchen in the southern Gazan city of Rafah.
Her attempts were in vain as Mohamed, five, and Mariam, eight, kept asking why Ahmed, 17, was taking longer than usual to return to the tent in which the family, like many other Gazans, now live after more than three months of Israel's war on the Palestinian territory.
For many, the charity kitchens, known as tekeyas, are the only source of fresh-cooked meals during severe food shortages created by the war, which began on October 7 after Hamas, the militant group that rules Gaza, launched cross-border raids into southern Israel.
According to the World Food Programme, 2.2 million Gazans of the enclave’s population of 2.3 million people face acute food insecurity, including 576,600 experiencing catastrophic hunger and starvation.
Now, the tekeyas face the prospect of having to close as stocks of food in local warehouses and shops that they rely on start running out, pushing prices higher.
When Ahmed finally returns with a small pot of cooked beans, his siblings wait eagerly while their mother divides the meagre portion between two plates for the children to eat along with bread she baked earlier in the day. The older family members sate their hunger by dipping pieces of bread into a paste of red bell peppers and Palestinian dukkah – a mix of sesame seeds, coriander seeds and cumin.
“The food we get from the tekeya is pretty much like ambulances saving lives until the wounded get to the hospital," said Umm Ibrahim, 41, whose family was forced to leave their home in northern Gaza in mid October.
"They don’t offer us full meals, or filling ones, We can’t rely on them fully and have to take side bites of canned foods or dry dips, but they do help stave off our children’s hunger and yearning for home-cooked hot meals, and offer crucial foods we don’t have access to otherwise,” she said.
She has become increasingly worried for her children as tekeyas cut down on the number of dishes and portion sizes, and as rumours spread that they may soon shut down altogether as ingredients run out.
“If they’re cold, I can hug them tight and warm their bodies with mine, but when they’re hungry, I can’t offer them anything. Words and hugs don’t quell their hunger. We fled our homes in such a rush, and such a long time ago, that the little we did manage to take away with us has already been consumed,” she says.
‘It keeps getting worse’
Hany Abu Al-Qassem, who manages a tekeya in Rafah, says his team of volunteers used to prepare 10 different dishes to provide the thousands of displaced people living near by with a proper diet, including proteins, carbohydrates and other nutrients. But that became increasingly difficult amid shortages of ingredients in local shops and soaring prices.
“Now it's down to only two or three items, without any animal proteins, as we’re forced to ration our spending, and also make do with what is available,” he told The National.
“We’ve already halved our portions even though, with the increasing numbers of displaced people, portions should be increasing,” he says, referring to the amount of food cooked each day. “If things keep getting worse, which they are, we may stop operations altogether, along with other tekeyas,” he said.
More than 85 per cent of Gaza’s population has been displaced, many several times, by Israel's blanket bombardment and ground offensive in what it says is the goal of "eradicating Hamas".
Hundreds of thousands fled south per the Israeli military's orders as it focused its campaign initially on Gaza's north. But with the fighting shifting to the centre and south, there is a constant influx of people into Rafah, which is among the increasingly shrinking so-called “safe zones” declared by the army.
While the world has responded to the plight of Gazans with thousands of tonnes of humanitarian aid, only small amounts are able to enter daily after passing through strict checks on each lorryload by the Israeli military. On Monday, WFP executive director Cindy McCain pointed out that “people in Gaza risk dying of hunger just miles from trucks filled with food".
Adnan Sheikh El-Eid, supervisor of Al-Rahma tekeya in Rafah, says basic food items like rice, bulgur, pasta, lentils, meats and legumes are all difficult to find, and items needed for cooking such as oils, spices and wood, are in short supply or sold at exorbitant prices.
“Cooking oil, which was sold at seven shekels a litre, is now sold at over 20 shekels [$5.30], while the price of a kilo of lentils multiplied from five shekels to 20 shekels, and firewood from 800 shekels per tonne to 3,000 shekels,” he said.
A result, the tekeya is now cooking only 35 pots a day compared with 60 previously.
Mr Al-Eid says the tekeya relies on funding from donors abroad and the food supplies entering Gaza, but these have not been enough to match the scale of the humanitarian crisis.
“We’ve had to send people away with no food. It breaks our hearts, but what can we do? No one is moving to stop this."
Umm Khalid, 58, is already feeling the effects of the crisis facing the tekeyas. Her family in Rafah, which includes 11 children and grandchildren, has had to make do with meals only three times a week from the nearest tekeya, down from a meal every day, in recent weeks.
“They were small portions, but they helped. There were also diverse dishes, and now they’re becoming less and less,” she says.
She dreads the day when the family will not get anything at all.
“I’ve seen children, who stood in snaking queues for hours to get food, returning to their tents with tears in their eyes, and empty plates,” she said.
“The aid we get is limited, and it is not close to meeting our basic needs. We also do not have money to buy what we lack, and if we have some things, we face difficulties in cooking them due to the lack of bread and fuel and the difficulty in obtaining water.
This article is published in collaboration with Egab.