Daily Press (Sunday)

Gaza’s civilians battle unrest, famine, disease

Sense of desperatio­n overwhelms tightly bonded community

- By Isabel Debre

JERUSALEM — Fistfights break out in bread lines. Residents wait hours for a gallon of brackish water that makes them sick. Scabies, diarrhea and respirator­y infections rip through overcrowde­d shelters. And some families have to choose who eats.

“My kids are crying because they are hungry and tired and can’t use the bathroom,” said Suzan Wahidi, an aid worker and mother of five at a U.N. shelter in the central town of Deir al-Balah, where hundreds of people share a single toilet. “I have nothing for them.”

With the Israel-Hamas war in its second month and more than 11,000 people killed in Gaza, trapped civilians are struggling to survive without electricit­y or running water. Palestinia­ns who managed to flee Israel’s ground invasion in northern Gaza now encounter scarcity of food and medicine in the south, and there is no end in sight to the war sparked by Hamas’ deadly Oct. 7 attack.

Over a half-million displaced people have crammed into hospitals and U.N. schools-turnedshel­ters in the south. The schools — overcrowde­d, strewn with trash, swarmed by flies — have become a breeding ground for infectious diseases.

Since the start of the war, several hundred trucks of aid have entered Gaza through the southern Rafah crossing, but aid organizati­ons say that’s a drop in the ocean of need. For most people, each day has become a drudging cycle of searching for bread and water and waiting in lines.

The sense of desperatio­n has strained Gaza’s closeknit society, which has

endured decades of conflict, four wars with Israel and a 16-year blockade since Hamas seized power from rival Palestinia­n forces.

Some Palestinia­ns have even vented their anger against Hamas, shouting insults at officials or beating up policemen in scenes unimaginab­le just a month ago, witnesses say.

“Everywhere you go, you see tension in the eyes of people,” said Yousef Hammash, an aid worker with the Norwegian Refugee Council in the southern town of Khan Younis. “You can tell they are at a breaking point.”

Supermarke­t shelves are nearly empty. Bakeries have shut down because of lack of flour and fuel for the ovens. Gaza’s farmland is mostly inaccessib­le, and there’s little in produce markets beyond onions and oranges. Families cook lentils over

small fires in the streets.

“You hear children crying in the night for sweets and hot food,” said Ahmad Kanj, 28, a photograph­er at a shelter in the southern town of Rafah. “I can’t sleep.”

Many people say they’ve gone weeks without meat, eggs or milk and now live on one meal a day.

“There is a real threat of malnutriti­on and people starving,” said Alia Zaki, spokespers­on for the U.N.’s World Food Program. What aid workers call “food insecurity” is the new baseline for Gaza’s 2.3 million people, she said.

Famed Gazan dishes like jazar ahmar — juicy red carrots stuffed with ground lamb and rice — are a distant memory, replaced by dates and packaged biscuits. Even those are hard to find.

Each day families send their most assertive relative off before dawn to one of the

few bakeries still functionin­g. Some take knives and sticks — they say they must prepare to defend themselves if attacked, with riots sporadical­ly breaking out in bread and water lines.

“I send my sons to the bakeries and eight hours later, they’ve come back with bruises and sometimes not even bread,” said 59-year-old Etaf Jamala, who fled Gaza City for the southern town of Deir al-Balah, where she sleeps in the packed halls of a hospital with 15 family members.

One woman told The Associated Press that her nephew, a 27-year-old father of five in the urban refugee camp of Jabaliya in northern Gaza, was stabbed in the back with a kitchen knife after being accused of cutting the line for water. He needed dozens of stitches, she said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

The violence has jarred the tiny territory, where family names are linked to community status and even small indiscreti­ons can be magnified in the public eye.

“The social fabric for which Gaza was known is fraying due to the anxiety and uncertaint­y and loss,” said Juliette Touma, a spokespers­on for the U.N. agency for Palestinia­n refugees.

Israel cut off water to Gaza shortly after the Hamas attack, saying its complete siege would be lifted only after the militants released the roughly 240 hostages they captured. Israel has since turned on pipelines to the center and south, but there’s no fuel to pump or process the water. The taps run dry.

Those who can’t find or afford bottled water rely on salty, unfiltered well water, which doctors say causes

diarrhea and serious gastrointe­stinal infections.

“I cannot recognize my own son,” Fadi Ihjazi said. The 3-year-old has lost 11 pounds in just two weeks, she said, and has been diagnosed with a chronic intestinal infection.

“Before the war he had the sweetest baby face,” Ihjazi said, but now his lips are chapped, his face yellowish, his eyes sunken.

At shelters, the lack of water makes it hard to maintain even basic hygiene, said Dr. Ali al-Uhisi, who treats patients at one in Deir alBalah. Lice and chickenpox have spread, he said, and on Wednesday morning alone he treated four cases of meningitis. He also recently saw 20 cases of the liver infection hepatitis A.

“What worries me is that I know I’m seeing a fraction of the total number of cases at the shelter,” he said.

 ?? HATEM ALI/AP ?? Palestinia­ns receive food Wednesday in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, where civilians struggle to survive without electricit­y or running water.
HATEM ALI/AP Palestinia­ns receive food Wednesday in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, where civilians struggle to survive without electricit­y or running water.

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