Starving as food prices soar

People gather around a man preparing meals on an outdoor stove at a camp for displaced Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, 31 December 2023. (Bashar Taleb / APA Images) 

Before October, Sabrin Yassin, 48, would buy half a kilo of yeast for $1.40. In late November, she was taken aback when the seller demanded $11 for the same amount.

“This is eight times what I used to pay,” she said. “Having yeast at home is equivalent to having gold nowadays. We have resorted to baking without yeast for over 40 days due to its scarcity and the steep increase in its prices.”

Due to the Israeli closure of its boundaries with Gaza since October, food is scarce in the Gaza Strip. People primarily depend on the aid provided by the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA).

Sabrin has six children, and her husband Jamal, formerly employed as a school maintenance worker, is their sole source of income. He earns around $330 a month, half of which is used to pay their mortgage.

“We used to live in Abasan al-Kabira in Khan Younis [southern Gaza], but on 11 November, we were forced to leave for the city center in Khan Younis after the Israeli army bombed our house,” she said.

Tanks later approached the center of the city of Khan Younis, and Israel carried out massive bombardments of the area.

“On 5 December, we were forced to flee to the al-Hawouz area in Khan Younis,” she said. “When we arrived, the UNRWA schools there were full.”

Displaced people can register their names at UNRWA schools to receive aid, but due to overcrowding, Sabrin and her family were turned away.

“We had our mattresses and sheets, but we were told by the UNRWA staff to leave,” she said. “They rejected adding our names to the list of aid beneficiaries.”

Sabrin spent two days on a street next to the Mustafa Hafez school in Khan Younis, hoping she would be allowed in, but her efforts went in vain. Two days later, their friends offered them shelter in their apartment.

“We lived with 13 other people. We had no access to drinkable water or food. Twenty people shared a single small bathroom. We could not clean after using the bathroom, as we only have water once a week.”

Everyone is a refugee now

Sabrin continues to struggle to secure food for her family. Due to her refugee status, she used to receive food aid from UNRWA every three months.

It consisted of flour, milk, lentils and cooking oil.

After 7 October, UNRWA started providing food aid to everyone, regardless of refugee status. At the beginning of the war, Sabrin would visit an UNRWA facility in the al-Sanaa area and receive aid, though she said it was often “chaotic with no clear aid distribution method.”

“I went there three times,” she said, “leaving my house at 5:50 am to be first in line. But displaced people already lived there, arriving before me.”

Each day, they closed the facility at 1 pm.

“I went back home empty-handed,” she said.

After days without flour, Sabrin went to the shop one mid-December morning at 6 am.

“I go as early as possible because the food is gone by midday,” she said.

Typically, a 25-kilo bag of flour would cost around $8. Now, it was nearly $50 – an impossible price.

“I tried to negotiate the price with him until two other men approached,” she said.

The men continued to outbid each other until one paid nearly $200 for the bag of flour.

“Only wealthy people can afford this price,” she said. “Their willingness to pay whatever the retailer asks, sometimes even more, has led to a significant increase in prices, leaving us, the poor, struggling.”

Rationing flour and reclaiming aid

Groups of starving people have broken into UNRWA warehouses in Gaza, taking flour and other supplies.

Aid trucks have also been stopped by people in need of food.

“People are stopping aid in trucks, taking the food and eating it right away. And this is how desperate and hungry they are,” an UNRWA official told reporters, according to Reuters.

Sabrin said that locally, aid groups have “provided trucks of flour to the neighborhood mukhtar [mayor] to guarantee fair distribution of flour. They provided families with six to eight members, like mine, with three bags of flour.”

Later on, she received only two bags of flour and was told there was a flour shortage.

Sabrin has learned to ration out the family’s flour precisely.

“I bake once every three days, providing a portion of four loaves per individual over that period,” she said. “I encourage my children to eat one and a third loaves per day.”

She said it is difficult for her youngest to restrict their food intake. They are hungry.

“Instead of starving for two days, they starve one out of every three days,” she said.

“Survival mode”

Salma Ahmed, 27, was displaced from the al-Nazla area of northern Gaza to the southern city of Rafah.

She is mother to a 1-year-old child and has felt the impact of rising prices. A can of milk for her child cost $5 before the war, now it’s nearly $7.

“I visited the pharmacy to buy one, and it happened to be the last can,” she said. “However, at that very moment, another man offered around $27, and the pharmacist sold it to him.”

“All I had at that moment was $13. I intended to buy both milk and diapers for my baby, who is suffering from malnutrition.”

Kamel Muhanna in Khan Younis, who runs a grocery store, said that the food shortage is due to the closure of all crossings with Israel.

“Israel’s division of Gaza into north and south has brought the transportation of goods between the Gaza Strip’s governorates to a standstill,” he said.

“Wholesalers sell to us at high prices, so we have to charge people even higher to make a profit.”

He said that people are now in “survival mode” and will pay whatever they have to for food.

Walaa Sabah is a freelance journalist based in the UK and the community outreach and partnership officer at We Are Not Numbers.