‘They scream in hunger’ - How Israel is starving Gaza

For three days, Al Jazeera followed three families in Gaza to document how they are coping with hardly any food.

Maysoon al-Nabahin squeezes out the last bit of cartoned cheese onto a freshly baked piece of bread, knowing it will be the only thing her family of eight will eat that day.

Umm Muhammed, as she's known, fled from a school in Bureij where she, together with her husband and six children, were sheltering after Israeli forces destroyed their home in east Bureij in central Gaza.

The 45-year-old now lives in the crowd of tents around Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in Deir el-Balah further south. She’s a petite woman, her face etched with worry, looking older than her years.

In the centre of their plastic makeshift tent is a small fire where Umm Muhammed is making flatbread on a woodfire saj oven. She’s surrounded by a few neatly arranged backpacks containing the belongings her family managed to bring, as well as a pile of blankets, now cleared away to make space for their daytime living.

[Photo: Abdelhakim Abu Raish/Al Jazeera] [Illustrations: Maaz Jan/Al Jazeera]
[Photo: Abdelhakim Abu Raish/Al Jazeera] [Illustrations: Maaz Jan/Al Jazeera]

‘Bread and cartoned cheese’

“[We are eating] the same thing, canned food, cartoned cream cheese and fava beans. We heat them over the fire to eat. Sugar used to be available but now it has become expensive. We make tea with dukkah [a type of dried herb] or thyme… it makes do," Umm Muhammed tells Al Jazeera under the buzzing sound of Israeli drones above.

There is no fresh food. Only cans and cartons.

And it is not enough for everyone.

Like many parents across Gaza, Umm Muhammed and her husband often go hungry to ensure their children have something to eat. Most of her children are young and in their development stages.

Many times we go hungry, the children must eat.

by Maysoon al-Nabahin

“The sweets and biscuits that were distributed [by aid agencies], when the children ate it, they immediately had diarrhoea. There isn’t space or water to bathe, or go to the bathroom in privacy or clean the little children when they have diarrhoea,” she laments.

Despite how difficult life is, Umm Muhammed has a sense of gratitude. Her children ask her for things to eat or food they miss, but she says they have adapted. Whether food or going to the bathroom, they have found a way to survive.

For three days, before the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, Al Jazeera followed the al-Nabahin family, recording their daily food intake to document how they, like many other families in Gaza, are surviving on the bare minimum.

Day 1

After having nothing to eat for breakfast, Umm Muhammed prepares some saj flatbread with cartoned cream cheese the family paid 10 shekels ($2.75) to get three boxes of. That would turn out to be the only meal of the day.

Shared between eight people, the food available roughly works out to 330 calories per person, considerably lower than the daily average recommended value of at least 1,000 calories for children and around 2,000 calories for adults.


Day 2

With nothing else available, the al-Nabahins ate the same saj with cheese as the day before.

“Since we've been here, it’s the same food every day. We thank God for it anyway,” Umm Mohammed says wistfully.

“I have a child who loves to eat... I always tell him he overeats,” Umm Muhammed laughs.


Day 3

On the third day, Umm Muhammed managed to cook up a dish of canned luncheon meat with a chopped-up tomato that they got on a World Food Programme (WFP) aid coupon.

The last time Umm Muhammed prepared a meal for her family was when they were still at home.

“You want a dish with sauce on the side but there is no sauce here. You want spices, or stock cubes, or other things, but there aren’t any,” she says.


Gaza facing catastrophic hunger

Israel has repeatedly blocked the delivery of aid supplies, including food, despite the International Court of Justice ruling in January that ordered Israel to “ensure the delivery of basic services and essential humanitarian aid to civilians in Gaza”.

According to a United Nations-backed report published last week, half of Gaza’s population – 1.1 million people – have completely exhausted their food supplies and coping capacities and are facing “catastrophic hunger”, the highest indicator of a famine.

Interactive_Hunger-Gaza_Catastrophic hunger

“People in Gaza are starving to death right now. The speed at which this man-made hunger and malnutrition crisis has ripped through Gaza is terrifying,” World Food Programme Executive Director Cindy McCain said.

Interactive_AlMasry_family cover_horizontal
[Photo: Abdelhakim Abu Raish/Al Jazeera] [Illustrations: Maaz Jan/Al Jazeera]
[Photo: Abdelhakim Abu Raish/Al Jazeera] [Illustrations: Maaz Jan/Al Jazeera]

‘They scream in hunger’

Also living under an overflowing plastic sheet-covered tent in Deir el-Balah are the 15 members of the al-Masry family.

There is no food in the al-Masry tent.

“We’ve been here almost a month. Since then, we have not eaten properly, and my children need food.

They scream in hunger and cry themselves to sleep”, 45-year-old Salwa al-Masry tells Al Jazeera, quivering.

Salwa, who also goes by Umm Mohammed, suffers from asthma and her husband has a cardiac condition. Her young children plead for food, and she has nothing to give them.

“My young son tells me: 'Mommy, I am hungry, I want to eat.’ I am patient with him and tell him: 'Sit down, I will get it for you.'"

But, she says, that is usually a lie as there is nothing she can do to help alleviate his hunger.

I have sent my daughter to go and look for someone to give her something to eat. People tell them to leave, there is nothing left.

by Salwa al-Masry

Umm Mohammed says she has been to every aid centre but all the warehouses have been cleaned out so she returns empty-handed.

She has lost considerable weight since she, her husband, eight daughters and five sons fled their home in Beit Hanoon in northern Gaza to Gaza City, then to Nuseirat and finally to this tent in Deir el-Balah.

Interactive_AlMasry_family collage-horizontal

“I'm afraid I'll die in the war. Who will my children stay with, and who will care for them?” she says. She heart aches every time one of the children begs for food and she has nothing to give them.

Here’s everything the al-Masry family ate over three days.

Day 1

No food.


Day 2

After having nothing to eat for breakfast or lunch, the family managed to get hold of three tins of fava beans.

Umm Mohammed puts aside two tins, knowing they may not be able to get any food tomorrow.

“What should I do? If I feed them today, how will I feed them tomorrow? I keep thinking, how will I provide them with food for the next day?”

The beans, which they eat with some bread, provide a much-needed source of nourishment but even if every family member managed to eat half a cup, that would still put them in a severe calorie deficit.


Day 3

On the third day, Umm Mohammed and her daughter managed to collect a handful of mallow, a wild winter plant they foraged for.

Umm Mohammed chops up the mallow leaves into a slippery paste where she adds some hibiscus and a finely chopped onion. This is the closest thing she has come to preparing a meal.

“I haven’t cooked since we’ve been here,” she sighs.

“When we were back home we used to eat, we were happy in our life, thank God. No one could have imagined where we would end up. We’ve been humiliated, humiliated, humiliated, humiliated,” she repeats.


Children dying of malnutrition

One in three children under the age of two in northern Gaza suffer from acute malnutrition according to nutrition screenings conducted by UNICEF and its partners.

“The speed at which this catastrophic child malnutrition crisis in Gaza has unfolded is shocking, especially when desperately needed assistance has been at the ready just a few miles away,” said Catherine Russell, UNICEF's executive director.


“We really do not know about what is happening to other children to whom we do not have access - what we know and what we have been warning about is that access to humanitarian aid and delivery of humanitarian aid can really reduce the proportion of malnutrition amongst children,” Adele Khodr, UNICEF regional director for the Middle East and North Africa said.

In February, Save the Children warned that Gaza was witnessing “a mass killing of children in slow motion because there is no food left and nothing getting to them”.

[Photo: Abdelhakim Abu Raish/Al Jazeera] [Illustrations: Maaz Jan/Al Jazeera]
[Photo: Abdelhakim Abu Raish/Al Jazeera] [Illustrations: Maaz Jan/Al Jazeera]

Bartering olives for potatoes

Sanaa "Umm Hassan" Abu Issa and her family of 11 have also been displaced multiple times.

In December, they fled their home in east Bureij in central Gaza after the Israeli army told them they had to evacuate. On foot, they fled to a school in Bureij camp where they were also told to evacuate.

In search of safety, the family, along with many others, were forced to make the trek south to Deir el-Balah where they were joined by Umm Hassan’s pregnant daughter and her husband who fled their home in Shujayea, one of the largest neighbourhoods in Gaza City.

Umm Hassan had a small convenience store as part of a social affairs project in front of her house, which has since been destroyed. The shop part of the house still stands, she tells Al Jazeera ruefully.

“Only part of the shop remains, because it is legitimate money, thank God,” she says, laughing.

They now live in a small tent, with plastic sheet walls.

The hard earth is covered with bits of faded fabric to make a place to sit. In one corner of the tent is a pile of worn-out blankets and a few bags that the family managed to bring from their home. In another corner is a makeshift kitchen with a table, a hotplate, two pots, a few pantry items and bits and pieces of utensils.


Umm Hassan explains how the neighbouring tents barter food items.

“The food issue here is complex. I asked my brother's wife to give me corned meat. Today, I told her I wanted potatoes. She exchanged my olives for potatoes. I took the potatoes; she took the olives and I sent her a cup of cooking oil,” Umm Hassan explains.

Everyone has one meal, and it is impossible to eat three meals.

by Sanaa Abu Issa

"From the day we came here, it's been impossible to eat three meals. It’s one meal a day”, she reiterates.

Umm Hassan has a small gas cylinder that she managed to pull out from under the rubble of her home along with a tin of olives, a bottle of red pepper, some dried chickpeas, some spices and some rice.

“Olives are an essential food, you can eat them with anything,” she laughs.

Umm Hassan’s daughter is pregnant and her due date is fast approaching. “She's lost a lot of weight”, she says, pointing to her daughter.

For three days, Al Jazeera also documented what the Abu Issa family ate.

Day 1

On the first day, Umm Hassan prepared some mashed potatoes, canned luncheon meat, olives and a few pieces of flatbread.

Shared among 11 family members, each person would be lucky if they managed to eat more than 400 calories, less than half what is needed for young children, and a fifth of what an adult would normally need to maintain their weight.

Food is very expensive. “One egg costs 2 shekels ($0.55). We crave eggs but ... thank God [for what we have],” she says.

The price of an egg has since gone up to 6 shekels ($1.64).


Day 2

On the second day, the family shares a bowl of canned white beans, which they got using an aid coupon, a little tomato paste added for flavour, and some bread.

“We make tea but without sugar. My husband wanted sugar in his tea, but I told him we must endure and be patient,” Umm Hassan smiles knowingly.


Day 3

On the third day, the Abu Issa family will eat their largest meal yet. Today’s feast consists of rice and peas and some pasta with tomato sauce which they receive from a food distribution hospice.

Even on a good day, at around 570 calories per person, this is still around half of what a child would need per day.

Interactive_AbuIssa2_DAY 3 REVISED

No normal-sized babies

"Doctors are reporting that they no longer see normal-sized babies," UNFPA official Dominic Allen told journalists after visiting hospitals still providing maternity services in the north of Gaza, where the need is especially great.

"What they do see though, tragically, is more stillborn births... and more neonatal deaths, caused in part by malnutrition, dehydration and complications," Allen added.

Interactive_Hunger-Gaza_11_180 women-REVISED

The numbers of complicated deliveries are roughly twice what they were before the war with Israel began - with mothers stressed, fearful, underfed and exhausted - and caregivers often lacking necessary supplies.

“People are desperate for food … you can understand how hard it is for a mother or a father to see their kids starving and not be able to sustain them … that is why UN agencies are pushing for more access to the north," Noor Hammad, a communications assistant at the WFP who oversees food deliveries, told Al Jazeera.

"The needs are dire and more needs to be done.”

Source: Al Jazeera