israel-hamas war

‘The Drones Are Shooting at Anything That Moves’ in Gaza

Facing famine, civilians search desperately for food under the threat of Israeli bombs.

Palestinian family breaks their fast in the rubble of a house destroyed in an Israeli attack
A Palestinian family breaks the Ramadan fast in their house in Rafah, which was destroyed by an Israeli attack. Photo: Jehad Alshrafi/Anadolu via Getty Images
Palestinian family breaks their fast in the rubble of a house destroyed in an Israeli attack
A Palestinian family breaks the Ramadan fast in their house in Rafah, which was destroyed by an Israeli attack. Photo: Jehad Alshrafi/Anadolu via Getty Images

For most of March, Anas woke up and went out into Gaza City to look for food. On any given day, the 23-year-old would spend up to eight hours walking through the rubble, searching for anything edible to bring home and divide among the 12 members of his family.

After six months of war, there are no markets left in the city, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing for sale. “It’s like a black market,” says Anas, who used to work as a network engineer and spoke on a first-name basis out of fear of being targeted by the Israeli military. “You walk around and find people selling stolen stuff.” He’ll walk a few miles, find nothing, then try looking in another neighborhood. Sometimes he’ll bring back a can of mushrooms, or maybe two pounds of rice, which can cost $45. Prices have jumped tenfold since October 7. “We eat one meal a day in order to sustain ourselves against the scarcity of food,” he says. Fresh vegetables are nonexistent. Flour is in short supply and exorbitantly priced. “Even for $200, you need to search long and wide and have a special connection to even be able to find a single meal,” Anas says. “It feels like a miracle when you find anything at all.”

Not long ago, he found the miraculous: a can of chicken mortadella, processed with spices and ready to slice, for only $27. He brought it home and prepared it, a tiny feast, as a surprise for his family.

Israel has effectively sealed off the Gaza Strip in its war against Hamas, stanching the previous flow of food, water, and medicine. Now, according to authorities, over 1 million people — half of Gaza’s population — are in the midst of a famine. Twenty-seven children have reportedly already starved to death in northern Gaza, where the famine is concentrated and where as many as a quarter of all children under 5 are suffering from acute malnutrition, according to the United Nations. In the south, the other half of the population is expected to experience famine by the end of spring in what the U.N. calls “a reasonable worst-case scenario.” People who don’t live near a functional market or can’t afford the price gouging mostly rely on aid, lining up to get food from agencies like the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and the World Food Program or from disaster-relief nonprofits like World Central Kitchen, and not nearly enough humanitarian relief is making it into Gaza.

When aid is delivered, it is done so at enormous risk. On Monday, an Israeli airstrike on a World Central Kitchen convoy killed seven people. The group said the convoy was leaving a warehouse in central Gaza after delivering more than 100 tons of food aid. Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu said his country’s forces “unintentionally hit innocent people” in a “tragic incident.”

“This is not only an attack against WCK, this is an attack on humanitarian organizations showing up in the most dire of situations where food is being used as a weapon of war,” said Erin Gore, chief executive of World Central Kitchen, according to Reuters. “This is unforgivable.” The group said it will pause further operations.

Before the war, an estimated 500 trucks entered Gaza each day, carrying commercial food imports and other goods as well as international aid. Six months in, this number has dropped by 80 percent. Israel has rejected some shipments of aid and slowed others with lengthy checks to prevent, it says, Hamas from smuggling in weapons and supplies. (A recent report showed lines of trucks, filled mostly with food, stretching for nearly two miles at one Israeli crossing point as they waited to enter.) Between February 5 and March 5, the U.N. said only ten to 15 trucks of food were allowed into the Gaza City area to feed roughly 300,000 people.

The European Union’s foreign-policy chief has accused Israel of provoking famine and using starvation “as a weapon of war,” which the U.N.’s top human-rights official recently said could amount to a war crime. Israeli officials have denied that the inspection process limits any aid, claiming that the U.N. is at fault for failing to distribute food inside Gaza and that Hamas and looters have stolen the aid. They have also said employees of UNRWA, the biggest coordinator of aid within Gaza, have ties to Hamas, and the officials have now told the U.N. they will bar all UNRWA food convoys from entering northern Gaza.

Nonprofits and foreign governments are attempting to work around Israel by delivering aid by air or sea. World Central Kitchen, which distributes food throughout Gaza, has built a jetty to meet aid ships from Cyprus. President Biden has announced the U.S. will also build a pier to allow a larger flow of aid. In the meantime, the proposed solution of airdropping bundles of food is wildly inadequate; besides the fact that airdrops sometimes kill the very people they are intended to help, the drops can’t deliver anything close to the amount of food needed.

When food does make it in, it can be extremely difficult for Gazans to reach. In early March, there was the “flour massacre,” in which Israeli soldiers fired on Palestinians who had come to collect flour from a convoy in Gaza City, with at least 112 people dying between the gunfire and a stampede. The same month, Israeli airstrikes reportedly killed multiple people in charge of distributing humanitarian aid, including the chief of Gaza’s emergency committee. By the end of March, Reuters has reported, half of the aid warehouses used to store food in Gaza have been so damaged by the fighting they are no longer operational.

From left: A baker in Nuseirat. “It can be 200 people on top of each other at the bakery,” Al-Sammak says. Photo: Haneen Al-SammakSacks of flour waiting to be distributed in Nuseirat.
From top: A baker in Nuseirat. “It can be 200 people on top of each other at the bakery,” Al-Sammak says. Photo: Haneen Al-SammakSacks of flour waitin... From top: A baker in Nuseirat. “It can be 200 people on top of each other at the bakery,” Al-Sammak says. Photo: Haneen Al-SammakSacks of flour waiting to be distributed in Nuseirat.

“The way it works with food is you have to go and look for it,” says Haneen Al-Sammak, a 48-year-old former resident of Gaza City. She worked in disability NGOs until October when she fled the city with her husband and three daughters. They first sheltered near the Nuseirat refugee camp. “When we left Gaza City, there was all kinds of food,” she says. “Cheese, labneh, eggs, vegetables, fruits, meat, chicken, liver, nuts, sugar, oil, dates, juices, sweets, chocolate. Everything was available and accessible.”

By November, food was already starting to run low. Al-Sammak’s family was out of flour and trying to grind wheat with corn when they heard that UNRWA, or possibly the World Food Program, would be distributing aid. “We would go every day and ask when we could sign up,” she says. At an aid center, her family was given a number, and after more than a month, it was their turn. Her husband waited in line for eight hours with what she estimates were 10,000 other people. He received three 55-pound bags of flour meant to last two months.

In January, several countries, including the U.S., pulled funding from UNRWA in response to Israel’s allegations that 12 of the agency’s 13,000 members took part in the Hamas attack of October 7. The funding freeze has threatened the organization’s ability to provide aid, and Al-Sammak says that while her family was scheduled to get flour again in February, they never received any. They have used savings to buy flour on the black market instead.

A month ago, Al-Sammak’s family finally managed to find housing in Al-Zawayda, a town in central Gaza. Now, she travels an hour every day on foot or by donkey cart to what’s left of the market there and spends two hours searching for food. Most of what the family eats at this point is canned. “We eat a lot of beans,” she says. “Lentils, lentils, lentils.” Like Anas, she and her family eat one meal a day. “I make one dish, like bazella. I cook enough for us to eat today and tomorrow.” Bazella is usually made with meat; she is forced to make it only with peas.

Every couple of days, she takes two pounds of flour to the bakery, waits in line, and gives the flour to the baker along with a small fee in exchange for bread. “The bakery is the only option,” she says. “When you cook, you need to have either fuel or gas, and we don’t always have enough.” The lack of reliable fuel also means the food she makes isn’t cooked all the way through sometimes, which causes indigestion and pain.

Trying to describe what this kind of hunger feels like, Al-Sammak hesitates. “It is exhaustion,” she says. “Headaches. You can’t walk any distance. You feel like you want to sleep all the time.” Her family’s bodies are showing the toll. “When my daughters go to the bathroom, they spend a very, very long time in the bathroom,” she says. “We can go a day or two without going to the bathroom.”

Still, she points out, her situation is better than many. She’s in central Gaza and lives in a building, not a tent. She had some money saved. Anas, in Gaza City, is a different story. Early on, his family pooled their money, trying to stockpile as much food as they could. “We tried to collect our resources when we could still find what to buy,” he says. “But it’s already been six months with no way to earn an income, so it has been basically impossible to access any food or money. The people of Gaza are not rich. We were not prepared for this kind of loss.”

Anas and his family live less than half a mile from Al-Shifa Hospital, where Israeli forces and Hamas fighters have been clashing for two weeks. The fighting has made Anas’s daylong searches impossible. “We are unable to move, neither in search of food nor water,” he says. “The drones are shooting at anything that moves.”

The food his family currently has stored was bought more than a week ago, and they’re running out of water. According to the World Food Program, most people in northern Gaza have access to less than one liter of water per person, per day. Anas’s family has resorted to drinking water from a nearby well, which he says is contaminated.

But contaminated water matters only if you live long enough to drink it. “Hunger is not our main preoccupation,” he says. “The hunger itself, we feel it, but we are not as concerned with hunger in relation to the fear. What we are thinking about is the next shell.” Anas says the “constant shooting” and explosions are moving closer to his home and growing more severe. He calls March 25 “the worst night of the war” he has experienced and shares a video in which massive clouds of dust billow through a hazy sky just a few houses away. “We are hungry,” he says, “but what’s on our minds is that this might be our last day.”

He and his family have moved around within Gaza City multiple times in search of safety, but they haven’t tried to leave entirely. “Even if we reach the south, the basic components of life cannot be found there,” he says, a statement with which the U.N.’s Famine Review Committee seems to agree. “If we had the resources to get out, to leave, we would escape the whole Gaza Strip.” But that’s not a possibility. When Anas leaves a message, under his quiet voice is the low, heavy buzz of drones.

‘The Drones Are Shooting at Anything That Moves’ in Gaza