|About 38 per cent of Gaza's 1.6 million residents live in poverty [EPA]
Crowds of women waving coupons worth two kilograms of beef line the stairwell to Secours Islamique France's Gaza City office several hours before the aid agency begins its meat distribution for Eid. Aid workers struggle to climb the stairs, hauling large bags of fresh meat to assist impoverished families in Gaza this holiday season.
Eid al-Adha – the Feast of Sacrifice – that fell Monday is one of the most important holidays in the Muslim calendar. This usually festive season reveals the poverty and desperation still gripping most Palestinians in Gaza.
International NGOs, many Islamic, have been purchasing sheep and cows this week in preparation for massive meat distribution projects across the Gaza Strip to assist the most vulnerable families. Several are providing gifts and warm clothing at the start of Gaza's winter season.
Islamic NGOs are launching ‘Qurbani' appeals worldwide. Qurbani refers to the animals (camels, cattle, goats or sheep) sacrificed by Muslims as an obligatory act of worship.
Secours Islamique France (SIF), headquartered in France and part of the global Islamic Relief network based in the UK, is running a large-scale Eid project. In all 3,507 families (24,552 beneficiaries) in five Gaza governorates received two kilograms of fresh meat, enough for one to two days.
High food costs
Osama Abu Warda, 21, from Jabalyah, says he has been searching for work for more than two years while his family of six has slid into poverty.
Osama's older brother died two years ago, leaving his mother and father to care for two additional children. Osama's father, a former labourer inside Israel, is also unemployed.
"One kilogram of beef costs 45 shekels (about $12), my family can only afford to purchase meat once every month or two," says Osama, waiting in line for the distribution.
"Meat is available in Gaza, but it's too costly for most families to purchase," says SIF's Gaza director, Adel Kaddum. "There is a lack of public assistance programmes to aid families to purchase protein rich foods."
About 38 per cent of Palestinians in Gaza are living below the "poverty line" (defined as $609 per month for a household of two adults and three children), according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS).
SIF's Eid programme assists hardship cases, including the unemployed, the elderly (over 60 years), and single-parent families.
Najwa Rabah, 35, from Gaza City and a single parent with two sons, describes this year's Eid as bleak.
"I can't afford to buy beef for my family," says Najwa. "I can only purchase one kilogram of chicken per week for 11 shekels (about three dollars)," she says.
Aid workers from the UK-based Muslim Hands International purchased 10 cows from Gaza's local market this week for their Eid project, with a budget of 25,000 dollars, to distribute two kilograms of fresh meat to 2,500 Gaza families.
About 66 per cent of households in Gaza are food insecure, or vulnerable to food insecurity, reports the World Food Programme (WFP). While an additional range of food products is entering Gaza through the Israeli controlled Kerem Shalom crossing (Gaza's only commercial crossing), the average family's lack of purchasing power puts these food commodities out of reach.
The flow of food commodities entering Gaza via underground tunnels along the Gaza-Egypt border has also increased, but is too costly for most families in Gaza, where unemployment hovers at 26 per cent.
Young and insecure
Data collected from 20 health centres operated by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Gaza, as part of the Agency's larger growth monitoring system for children, indicated that five percent of children (0- 3 years) showed signs of growth retardation (underweight, stunting and wasting) in 2010, reports chief of UNRWA's health programme, Dr Mohamed Maqadma.
That figure has doubled since 2005, says Maqadma. "Children in Gaza do not have access to foods that meet growth needs," he says.
About 1.1 million Palestinians in Gaza, out of a total 1.6 million, are registered refuges. Over 50 per cent of the population is under 18.
The recent escalation of violence between Israel and Palestinian fighters in Gaza, which claimed the lives of one Israeli civilian and 12 members of Islamic Jihad's armed wing, underscored the fragility of the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.
Hamas is not firing rockets into Israel, but must be careful in how it clamps down on fighters in Gaza.
Humanitarian indicators for Gaza's population are very similar to those that existed when Israel commenced Operation Cast Lead in Gaza ending January 2009, according to acting director of UNRWA operations in Gaza, Christer Nordahl.
"If the violence is extended and the borders are closed for a few weeks, cutting off UNRWA's supply chain, this could have a great humanitarian impact," Nordahl said.
There is only one crossing point, Kerem Shalom (along the Gaza-Israel border), where UNRWA can send in humanitarian supplies, such as food commodities, medical supplies and fuel.
UNRWA generally has between two to four weeks worth of fuel supply in stock.
The Agency is prohibited from purchasing fuel and other materials from the local market, most of which enter Gaza via underground tunnels along the Gaza-Egypt border.
In an emergency Egypt could allow humanitarian supplies to enter Gaza via Rafah crossing (along the Gaza-Egypt border). UNRWA has been told by the Egyptian government that there in no intention to change the Rafah border regime before a new government is in place.
Egyptian officials said last week that Egypt will not allow another major Israeli operation against Gaza. Former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak who held office during Operation Cast Lead, was ousted from power in January this year.
Hakma Suliman, a single parent from Dier al-Balah, waits anxiously outside SIF's Gaza City office with her four-year old daughter. Her husband was killed in 2009 during Israel's operation, leaving Hakma to support her family of six.
"I am unemployed and I can't provide for my family, especially during the Eid," says Hakma, clutching her coupon.
A version of this article was first published by Inter Press Service news agency.