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Palestinians inspect the ruins of Aklouk Tower destroyed in Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City on October 8, 2023 (Wafa with APA Images)

As Israel’s War in Gaza Deepens Hunger, Famine Looms

As Israel deepened its siege of the Gaza Strip throughout months of war, hunger has taken root and raised the risk of famine.

Words: Mohammed Ali*
Pictures: Wafa Agency

In the quiet corridors of the Awda Medical Center in Rafah, the bed that once cradled 10-year-old Yazan al-Kafarna stood chillingly empty. Monday brought a somber end to Yazan’s battle with malnutrition, a struggle compounded by his cerebral palsy — a condition he had fought since his birth.

Yazan is just one among a growing number of children who have died due to what the United Nations has warned is on its way to becoming an “almost inevitable” widespread famine. On Oct. 7, Hamas-led fighters attacked southern Israel, killing around 1,200 people and taking some 250 people hostage. Since then, Israel’s war on the besieged coastal enclave has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians.

As fighting has worsened, devastation has mounted in Gaza, and children have been hit especially hard. At least 17,000 children are unaccompanied or separated from their parents in the Gaza Strip. Worse still, many have died from hunger.

For the al-Kafarna family, like many others in Gaza, the war has meant one displacement after another. On Oct. 8, they fled Israeli bombardment in Beit Lahia. Moving southward, they crossed through Jabaliya, Nuseirat, and Deir al-Balah before finally reaching Rafah, where Gaza borders Egypt. The journey took a toll on Yazan, according to his father, 31-year-old Shareef. “Moving Yazan was so difficult due to his condition and weakened body,” he said.

But Rafah offered no respite from the suffering. The family soon became stuck in a relentless cycle of shuttling between hospitals. Each time they moved, it drained Yazan of his strength even more. “He used to eat everything, just like us,” Shareef said.

But that was before the war, before widespread scarcity had turned the family’s world upside down. Desperate, Shareef navigated Rafah’s markets, bartering whatever he owned to come up with food for his son.

Siege and Shadow Economy

As Israel tightened its siege on Gaza, a shadow economy grew. With shortages widespread, essentials vanish from the market only to resurface at exorbitant prices. Basic necessities — poultry, meat, vegetables, fruits — are now beyond the reach of many.

For Yazan, whose diet required mashed fruits, eggs, and milk, the black market’s prices were a sentence to death-by-starvation. Whenever Shareef found eggs, they went for three to four shekels apiece ($0.84-$1.12). In effect, the simple act of feeding his son had become an insurmountable challenge.

Moving Yazan was so difficult due to his condition and weakened body.

– Shareef al-Kafarna

Thirty-one-year-old Marwa, Yazan’s mother, cried as she swiped through her cellphone and paused on a snapshot of Yazan during happier times. The photo showed a smiling, healthy boy before he had run up against the cruelty of war. She spoke with a whisper of anguish in her voice. “He was an active weight-gaining child who loved to play games on his mobile, watch TV, and had quality time with his father,” she recalled.

As she now shelters in the cramped confines of a UN school, repurposed into a makeshift home, Marwa can find no solace for her. “Days before his death, I was told by the doctors to start praying for his comfort in death,” she said.

“Even Motherhood Is Impossible”

Meanwhile, the acute shortage of essential supplies has left Aya Alfayoume worried for her daughter, Nesreen. The 19-year-old cradled the infant, who was born during the war, and explained that the child’s weight has only grown by an ounce since her birth. Nestled in Aya’s arms, the child was thin and pale, a testament to how dire the humanitarian situation has become. “She needs a special type of milk, which doesn’t exist in pharmacies anymore,” Aya said.

The war, Aya explained has even marred her ability to feel the full experience of motherhood. Because the mother cannot eat a normal diet, she cannot breastfeed the infant. “Even motherhood is impossible to feel at the moment,” she added.

Throughout her pregnancy, Aya relied on canned food provided by the UN at the schools-turned-makeshift-shelters where she took refuge. “Everything I needed was not available or [was] just insanely expensive on the black market,” she recalled.

For months, Aya endured the worsening conditions inside a school-turned-makeshift-shelter: a lack of personal hygiene, the chill of sleepless nights, and the rampant spread of disease due to inadequate healthcare. She eventually sought reprieve with others, slapping together a tent made of clothing and string. It didn’t provide comfort, but it did afford space to grieve and cry without being seen.

“Dozens Dying Silently”

In February, the World Food Programme (WFP) paused its deliveries of food due to a lack of security while distributing food packages. Five months into the war, an estimated half a million people are facing “catastrophic levels of food insecurity,” according to the UN’s humanitarian agency (OCHA).

More than half of the prewar residents of Gaza City, once the Strip’s most populous community, have been displaced. Nearly 300,000 people have stayed in the city despite Israel intensifying its invasion, and they are now left with dwindling prewar food supplies and few aid trucks entering from the north. Both water and food have become increasingly difficult to come by. WFP has warned that life in northern Gaza “will deteriorate further,” adding that “more people risk dying of hunger.” In the north, one in six children under two years old are enduring acute malnutrition.

According to OCHA, the number of humanitarian missions facilitated by Israeli authorities have increased by 48% throughout Gaza, climbing from 75 in January to 111 in February. But efforts to get more aid into the strip have been hit with pauses due to violence. On Feb. 5, for instance, a UN-coordinated food convoy was directly hit by Israeli naval fire. As a result of that strike and harassment by Israeli forces, the UN agency had to implement a temporary pause in food deliveries.

Meanwhile, the health ministry in Gaza has reported almost a daily surge in deaths as a result of malnutrition and dehydration. On Wednesday, the number of people killed by starvation and malnutrition reached 20, but the ministry said the tally only includes those who reach hospitals. “We believe that dozens are dying silently without reaching hospitals as a result of starvation,” spokesperson Ashraf al-Qudra said on Telegram.

“Very Grim”

On social media, a video posted on March 2 showed two doctors standing next to an ICU bed with the body of an infant killed by dehydration and malnutrition at the Kamal Adwan Hospital in northern Gaza. “This is not the first case [of someone who] died in this department,” one of the doctors said, adding that they “expect more people to die” if the necessary medicine, equipment, and humanitarian supplies are not provided to the hospital.

Dr. Hosam Abu Saifa, the acting director at the hospital, said that amid the shortage of supplies, “Most of the cases of children we have now are in a condition that ranges from severe to stable, and they may need ventilators at any moment.”

In southern Gaza, where more than two million civilians are cramped due to displacement, the situation is not any better. Ahmed al-Shaer, a pediatric doctor at Al-Helal Al-Emirati Maternity Hospital in Rafah, said conditions are deteriorating so quickly that they have been forced to place two or three infants in a single incubator.

As Israel’s war on Gaza enters its sixth month, the toll on its youngest inhabitants underscores the profound human cost of the fighting. With the humanitarian situation worsening by the day, thousands of children facing malnutrition and displacement. “The situation is very grim,” al-Shaer said. “Infections and diseases are spreading among people, especially children, as a result of malnutrition and a lack of medical solutions.”

Mohammed Ali*

*Mohammed Ali is a journalist working in Gaza.

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