In Gaza, growing signs of anger at Hamas as residents fight for food, battle diseases

Hamas officers attacked at water and bread lines; locals seethe over continued rocket fire and begin to turn on one another as supermarket shelves stand empty and many taps run dry

Palestinians line up for food in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, November 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)
Palestinians line up for food in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, November 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

Fistfights break out in breadlines. 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 UN shelter in the central Gaza 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, trapped civilians are struggling to survive without electricity or running water. Palestinians who managed to flee Israel’s ground offensive in northern Gaza now encounter a scarcity of food and medicine in the south, and there is no end in sight to the war sparked by the Hamas terror group’s devastating October 7 onslaught in southern Israel, in which over 1,200 people were murdered, mostly civilians, and at least 239 were kidnapped.

Israel’s subsequent aerial and ground offensive targeting Hamas infrastructure has killed over 11,000 people, according to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza. The figure cannot be verified independently and is believed to include members of terror groups and civilians killed by misfired Palestinian rockets. Israel has repeatedly accused Hamas of embedding itself among civilians, using them as human shields, and plundering the Strip’s resources for its own purposes while civilians suffer severe shortages.

Over half a million displaced people have crammed into hospitals and UN schools-turned-shelters 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.

File: United Nations and Red Crescent workers prepare the aid for distribution to Palestinians at UNRWA warehouse in Deir Al-Balah, Gaza Strip, October 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Hassan Eslaiah)

The sense of desperation has strained Gaza’s close-knit society, which has endured decades of conflict, four wars with Israel, and a 16-year blockade aimed at preventing Hamas — which openly seeks Israel’s destruction and has vowed to repeat the October 7 massacres if given the chance — from arming since it seized power from rival Palestinian forces in a bloody coup.

Across Gaza, rare scenes of dissent are playing out. Some Palestinians are openly challenging the authority of Hamas, which long has ruled the enclave with an iron fist, in scenes unimaginable just a month ago. Four Palestinians across Gaza spoke to AP on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals about what they’ve seen.

A man who was told off by a Hamas officer for cutting the bread line took a chair and smashed it over his head, according to an aid worker in line. In another area, angry crowds hurled stones at Hamas police who cut in front of a water line and beat them with their fists until they scattered, according to a journalist there.

Over the past few nights in Gaza City, Hamas rockets streaming overhead toward Israel have prompted outbursts of rage from a UN shelter. In the middle of the night, hundreds of people shouted insults against Hamas and cried out that they wanted the war to end, according to a 28-year-old sleeping in a tent there with his family.

And during a televised press conference Tuesday, a young man with a dazed expression and bandaged wrist pushed his way through the crowd, disrupting a speech by Iyad Bozum, spokesman for the Hamas-run Interior Ministry.

“May God hold you to account, Hamas!” the man yelled, shaking his wounded hand.

“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 a 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.

Shelves stand empty as food supplies to the Gaza Strip run short at a supermarket in Khan Younis, on November 11, 2023. (Mahmud HAMS / AFP)

“There is a real threat of malnutrition and people starving,” said Alia Zaki, spokesperson for the UN’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 relatives 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 UN agency for Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

File: Palestinians resort to seawater to bathe and clean their tools and clothes due to the continuing water shortage in the Gaza Strip, on the beach of Deir al-Balah, October 29, 2023. (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman)

Israel cut off water to Gaza shortly after the Hamas attack, saying its complete siege would be lifted only after the terrorists 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. Many taps run dry.

Israel has said that Hamas is hoarding fuel for its military purposes and to maintain oxygen flow in its vast network of tunnels.

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,” said Fadi Ihjazi. The 3-year-old has lost 5 kilograms (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 al-Balah. Lice and chicken pox have spread, he said, and on Wednesday morning alone he treated four cases of meningitis. This week, he’s also seen 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.

Internally displaced Palestinian children who have fled their homes in the northern Gaza Strip hold containers as they wait for food in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on November 11, 2023. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

For most ailments, there is no treatment — zinc tablets and oral rehydration salts vanished the first week of the war. Frustrated patients have assaulted doctors, said Al-Uhisi, who described being beaten this week by a patient who needed a syringe.

Sadeia Abu Harbeid, 44, said she missed a chemotherapy treatment for her breast cancer during the second week of the war and can’t find painkillers. Without regular treatments, she says, her chances of survival are dim.

She hardly eats, choosing to give most of the little food she has to her 2-year-old. “This existence is a humiliation,” she said.

Gaza’s future remains uncertain as Israeli tanks rumble down the ghostly streets of Gaza City with the goal of toppling Hamas. Palestinians say it will never be the same.

“The Gaza I know is just a memory now,” said 16-year-old Jehad Ghandour, who fled to Rafah. “There are no places or anything I know left.”

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