The desperate scrabble for food in northern Gaza

A group of people walk as parachuted packages are visible in the air behind them

Airdropped humanitarian aid is not only insufficient and ineffecient, it brings deadly danger too. Here on 15 March. 

Omar Ashtawy APA images

How do you get food in northern Gaza?

Short answer, with extreme difficulty.

As Israel’s military continues to impose famine on Gaza, and without any semblance of law and order, since local police are targets for Israeli soldiers, an estimated 500,000 people who stayed in the north are facing imminent death from starvation.

The few orderly aid distributions that do come through are inevitably organized by the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) in coordination with law enforcement – as much as they can – and local clans.

One such moment of relief came in mid-March.

After six hours of waiting in line in front of an UNRWA warehouse in Jabaliya refugee camp, Walid Ribhi, 43, finally secured nine cans of various foods, a kilo of rice and sugar and five kilos of flour.

He and his family had had to survive without any aid for two months prior.

In January, Israel said it would stop granting permission to UNRWA to deliver aid in the north. By February, UNRWA said it was forced to suspend delivering humanitarian assistance in the area because of the chaotic and lawless conditions there, as well as the extreme danger to its staff.

In early February, the Israeli military opened fire at one UNRWA truck attempting to deliver aid in the north. No one was hurt in the incident, but there have been several similar incidents, including missile strikes at distribution centers such as the one Ribhi secured his food at, and, recently, the attack on a World Central Kitchen convoy that killed seven aid workers.

The absence of order, meanwhile, has followed the constant targeting of Gaza’s police attempting to ensure the orderly delivery of aid.

In mid-March, local police and the clan elders coordinated with the UN to get 12 truckloads of aid that the Israeli military had allowed into northern Gaza into UNRWA warehouses in Jabaliya.

Israel allowed the aid – which included flour, rice and canned foods – to reach the north two days in a row before shutting down the route again.

Once the aid arrived at the warehouses, hundreds of people gathered and lined up in front. Ribhi was among them.

After securing his allocation, Ribhi returned home overjoyed that he could finally feed his children and displaced relatives in the house. His wife rushed to make bread and manakish (a dough topped with the herb zaatar) with cheese.

“My wife made a big amount of manakish because we didn’t eat well for months,” Ribhi told The Electronic Intifada. “We ate them like crazy. It was the first time in months I held bread and manakish. I had almost forgotten their shape and taste.”

Soup and animal feed

But elation soon gave way to caution as the reality set in that this might be the last aid the family would get for some time. The family mixed the flour with animal feed to make it go further, Ribhi said.

Ribhi attributed his ability to get some food for the first time in months despite the fact that there were only a few trucks of aid entering the north in March to discipline in distribution.

“Everything related to the distribution process was completely different this time. It reached inside the north, even inside the northeast of the city, unlike before, when the trucks stopped at the entrance to the city at the north,” Ribhi said.

UNRWA had coordinated with local government officials and clans in the area, collecting the aid, then handing it over to clans to safely transport to the north.

Finally, local police threatened dire consequences against anyone attempting to steal aid.

“We didn’t find any gangs attacking the trucks on that day. There were no injuries, no killings, no random distribution, no stealing or attacking people. So a number of people received some food,” he said.

Ribhi is sheltering with his five family members and seven members of his wife’s family in his parents’ house in Jabaliya refugee camp after fleeing his apartment in the Sheikh Zayed towers near the northeast boundary of Gaza with Israel.

When the war started, he purchased two bags of rice, sugar and salt, five bags of flour and tens of pasta packets, as well as some canned food in preparation.

Four months ago – two months into Israel’s genocide – the food in the markets began to run out, and the family had to start relying on their reserves. These proved enough for just two months.

They were left with canned tomatoes and khubeza – an edible plant that grows wild and which they picked from either empty land or along sidewalks. It was among the very few types of food available in the north, but, with people starving, it’s now almost impossible to find.

On occasion, when some fresh produce had made its way north they would treat themselves to fresh cucumbers or tomatoes at vastly inflated prices, sometimes reaching as much as $100 a kilo.

As flour ran out, they started grinding animal fodder and barley to make bread to eat along with the khubeza or with broth made from animal bones.

Reduced to begging

The few times an aid truck reached the north, Ribhi and his brother-in-law would rush to get some flour and food.

They braved Israeli gunfire or tank shelling to do so.

They also had to contend with opportunists who would steal food in order to sell it at inflated prices, knowing that police were unable to operate since Israel had made it a policy to target officers trying to keep order.

Like Ribhi, Mahmoud Radwan, 33, stayed in his house in Jabaliya camp with 20 relatives, including his mother, his wife and his three children.

Also like Ribhi, once Radwan learned about the arrival of aid trucks in mid-March, he went to the UNRWA warehouse at midnight to line up and be given a number. Hundreds were already waiting.

He bore out Ribhi’s testimony that this particular aid distribution passed off in an orderly manner, as a result of allowing UNRWA to do its work.

Unlike Ribhi, however, Radwan’s luck was out. All aid was distributed before his turn came, perhaps not surprising since half a million people have remained in the north, all relying on aid to feed themselves.

Radwan had hoped to obtain flour and cans of food to feed his children. The family had had no food in the house for two months and had survived, like others, on khubeza and grass.

Radwan told The Electronic Intifada that he had had to put his pride aside on several occasions to secure food from small charity kitchens set up by locals in various neighborhoods.

He hated to feel that he had been reduced to begging.

At home, his children and pregnant wife were desperate. Hunger had left them without energy and in agony.

Ashamed to return empty-handed, especially after he had promised his children he wouldn’t, Radwan roamed the streets for options, a life-threatening exercise in the circumstances.

As luck would have it, he found someone selling their own UNRWA aid package. He paid $200, he said, for what would normally cost $10.

But he had flour and food, just as he had promised. And it was with joy that he returned home, casting aside for a moment worries about his diminishing savings.

“I no longer have enough money for the coming months,” he told The Electronic Intifada. “Even if I did, there is nothing to buy in the market, and when a few products are available, they are 100 times their normal price.”

Radwan is fully aware of his narrowing options, should Israel continue to block aid from entering the north.

“I feel our deaths are inevitable as long as food aid is restricted to what is barely enough for a few people to survive a few days.”

Death by airdrop

Asmahan Yaseen, 46, also went to the UNRWA warehouse when she heard that it was able to distribute newly arrived aid.

She waited a relatively short five hours in the women’s line and managed to secure some food.

It was a paltry package, however, five cans of food, including processed meat, peas and cheese. Barely enough for two days for the total of 26 family members and relatives in her house.

Nonetheless, Yaseen’s family was able to enjoy a cooked meal for the first time in months. As they sat down with a meal of peas and rice, it felt a luxury.

The next day, they made two cheese sandwiches each for breakfast.

They hadn’t tasted such food in a long time, and Yaseen cried while eating. These were tears of relief mingled with grief, as she remembered her son Muhammad, who had been killed trying to secure food for the family on the first day of Ramadan.

Muhammad had insisted that they not break their first Ramadan fast with a “meal” of only water and salt. From a neighbor he had heard that airdrops of aid were supposed to be flown in that day, so he went to the roof to see if any fell nearby.

Yaseen recalled bitterly how her son had been struck by a box, the parachute of which had failed to open. He died hungry, she told The Electronic Intifada, clutching a can of peas.

“I wished he had been alive to taste this meal,” Yaseen said about the meal they eventually managed to prepare. “He always liked peas with rice. I made it every week for him.”

She also voiced her anger at the airdrops, saying not only were they dangerous and insufficient, they were by nature a disorderly form of distribution that only led to more chaos on the ground and served only to make some countries feel better about not doing enough to end Israel’s genocide.

The mid-March aid distribution was an exception.

Hunger has set firmly in, in the north of Gaza. Yaseen’s 6-year-old granddaughter had to be admitted to hospital as a result of severe malnutrition – a sign of how serious her condition was, since hospitals are overwhelmed.

According to Yaseen, her granddaughter had gone from 40 kgs to 20 after months of eating only broth and what little bread could be made from the animal feed. The girl is now on a saline drip for her survival.

Khuloud Rabah Sulaiman is a journalist living in Gaza.