A Ramadan of ‘sadness’ as war-weary Gazans go hungry

JERUSALEM — For Mahasen Khateeb, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan used to be a time of lavish dinners, family gatherings, communal prayers and gift giving.

“All of that is gone,” the 31-year-old graphic designer said by phone from Jabalya, in northern Gaza, which humanitarian groups warn is on the brink of famine after months of Israeli siege and bombardment.

Khateeb doesn’t have enough food for suhoor, the traditional meal eaten before dawn, when the day-long Ramadan fast begins. On Tuesday for iftar, the post-sunset meal when people break their fast, she planned to make rounds of bread topped with canned tomato sauce. Her brother risked his life, she said, to get a bag of flour during a rare and chaotic aid delivery last week.

“This situation isn’t new with Ramadan,” she said. “We’ve already been fasting for more than a month. … There are no food products to buy and eat.”

The Washington Post spoke to five Gazans in the north Tuesday about how they are marking Ramadan — and trying to survive — amid the chaos of war. Khateeb, like the others interviewed for this story, said she has mainly been subsisting on leafy green plants that grow with the winter rains and die out as spring approaches.

“We never ever, ever expected that the war would continue until today,” Khateeb said. “God willing, the war will end before Ramadan does.”

16 children have died of malnutrition in aid-starved Gaza, health officials say

In the weeks leading up to Ramadan, which began Monday in Gaza, hopes were high that Israel and Hamas would agree to a U.S.-backed, Qatari-mediated cease-fire — allowing for hostages captured on Oct. 7 to be exchanged for Palestinian prisoners and for more aid to enter the Strip. But talks stalled as the war entered its sixth month.

The two sides are “not near a deal,” Majed Al Ansari, a spokesman for the Qatari Foreign Ministry, said Tuesday.

The central outstanding issue, according to U.S. and Arab officials, is Hamas’s insistence that Israel commit to a permanent cease-fire. Israel has vowed to keep fighting until the militant group is destroyed.

The war began Oct. 7 after Hamas-led fighters poured into southern Israel, killing about 1,200 people and taking more than 250 hostages, according to Israeli authorities. More than 31,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s air and ground war, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between fighters and civilians but says the majority of the dead are women and children.

The World Health Organization has warned that many more Palestinians could die of starvation and disease in the coming months.

How Israel’s restrictions on aid put Gaza on the brink of famine

The health and hunger crisis is especially dire in the north, still home to some 300,000 people, where aid deliveries have effectively collapsed this year. The World Food Program was able to deliver food for 25,000 people to Gaza City on Tuesday, the group said, its first successful convoy to the north since Feb. 20.

The Health Ministry says more than 20 Gazans, most of them children, have died of hunger and thirst in recent weeks.

“We need deliveries every day + we need entry points directly into the north,” WFP said on X.

Amid mounting international alarm, the U.S. Air Force began daily aid flights over Gaza earlier this month — about 330 pounds of rice, flour, pasta, baby formula and canned goods were dropped over a beach in northern Gaza on Tuesday — and President Biden has urged Israel to “facilitate more trucks and more routes” for aid.

Humanitarian groups say Israeli restrictions have severely limited the amount of aid entering Gaza. And Israeli attacks on aid convoys and the police who once guarded them have left aid deliveries vulnerable to attack by desperate civilians and criminal groups. As order breaks down across the enclave, relief trips to the north have become increasingly rare.

Israel denies restricting the flow of aid into Gaza. It has accused Hamas of diverting humanitarian supplies and blamed the United Nations for delivery problems. As the need grows, the Israeli military has also begun to arrange private commercial convoys to the north.

Desperation and death surround an aid delivery in northern Gaza

A delivery on Feb. 29, near a roundabout in Gaza City, devolved into what a group of U.N. experts described as a “massacre.” More than 100 Palestinians were killed and hundreds more wounded as they waited for flour, according to Palestinian officials, who said Israeli forces opened fire on the crowd. The Israeli military said soldiers fired at “suspects” deemed threatening but blamed a stampede for most of the casualties.

Ramadan is typically a time when friends and family gather late into the night. But most residents of the north have been displaced to the south; “now, after sunset no one goes out, as they are afraid of strikes or of anything else that can happen,” Khateeb said. Much of her family has already fled to Rafah, along the Egyptian border.

Elsewhere in Jabalya, Mohammed Jawad, 33, spent hours Monday waiting by the beach for a rumored airdrop that never happened, he told The Post. Ramadan or not, he said, he only eats one meal a day. For iftar on Tuesday, he made what’s become a common wartime dish: a thin soup made from khoubiza, a leafy mallow green.

Without flour, he said, “just leafy greens are available. We cook it with water.”

Soon, even the khoubiza will disappear, he said. He estimated he has lost about 25 pounds.

“Everything that comes in is stolen,” he said, and then sometimes resold in shops at exorbitant prices. “What comes from the sky is very limited.”

Elsewhere in the north, in Beit Lahia, Yahiya Almadhoun, 45, said he is spending the holiday apart from his wife and children, who fled to central Gaza earlier in the war. The usual sounds of Ramadan in his neighborhood — the call to prayer from local mosques, festivities for children in the streets, joyous public meals — are gone, he said.

“Ramadan is supposed to be a month of goodness and blessings. It has turned into a month of sadness.”

Almadhoun said he has shed about 20 pounds since the war began. Cans of tuna have gone from half a dollar to $10, he said. He couldn’t remember the last time he had eaten meat.

“People are reliant on the weeds that are usually food for animals,” he said. “Those who have money and don’t have money are the same, as there is nothing in the market to buy.”

He broke his fast on Tuesday with some bread made from rabbit feed and a few drops of date syrup.

Steve Hendrix in Amman, Jordan, Hajar Harb in London and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.

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