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This Ramadan, starving Gazans will break their fast with scraps found in the garbage

By Sana Noor Haq, Ibrahim Dahman, Kareem Khadder and Mohammad Al Sawalhi, CNN

Editor’s Note: A version of this story appears in CNN’s Meanwhile in the Middle East newsletter, a three-times-a-week look inside the region’s biggest stories. Sign up here.

CNN  — 

A toddler wearing a red jumper plays with fairy lights that adorn tents to celebrate the start of Ramadan in a displacement camp in Deir al-Balah, central Gaza. Her blonde curls bob between rows of Ramadan bunting, as the yellow glow of the sun marks the first day of the holy month.

Children bang on toy drums, dance and march to traditional Ramadan songs. Nearby, women cook stew and knead dough to make bread in the neighborhood, where palm trees dot the horizon. Residents say they thought it important to decorate the tent city for the festivities this year, as they once did in their homes and neighborhoods before they were displaced by Israel’s assault on Gaza. For the children, it brings a semblance of normalcy.

But the hum of Israeli drones cuts through the festivities as a reminder that this is no ordinary Ramadan in Gaza. Palestinians told CNN the war has crushed hopes of observing a peaceful month of fasting, festivities and worship this year. Some are grappling with the reality that they will not find enough sustenance to break their fast as Israel’s siege diminishes critical supplies, inflicting deadly hunger on Palestinians.

Food shortages are reportedly worst in the north, where some say they are abstaining from food and water from sunrise to sunset not because of Ramadan, but because they have no other choice. Children desperately rummage through garbage, searching for scraps of food. Further south, in Rafah, Palestinians say they are terrified by the threat of a potentially bloody Israeli ground offensive in the city – where most civilians have been forced to flee from bombardment.

“We wait for Ramadan because it’s a month of blessings, peace, and worship,” Aseel Mousa, 26, a journalist displaced in Rafah, told CNN. “But this Ramadan is coming amidst genocide and famine.”

Israel launched its military offensive in Gaza after the militant group Hamas, which governs Gaza, killed at least 1,200 people and abducted more than 250 others on October 7.

Since then, Israeli attacks on Gaza have killed more than 31,300 Palestinians – 72 percent of whom are women and children – according to the Ministry of Health in the enclave. More than 73,000 have been wounded. At least 27 people have starved to death so far, including newborn babies, pediatric doctors told CNN. Two of those died of malnutrition during the first days of Ramadan, according to the ministry.

Israel insists there is “no limit” on the amount of aid that can enter Gaza, but its inspection regime on aid trucks means relief is barely trickling in. Humanitarian workers and government officials overseeing aid distribution in Gaza told CNN a clear pattern has emerged of Israeli obstruction of aid delivery. They say Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, or COGAT, the agency that controls access to Gaza, has imposed arbitrary and contradictory criteria.

Human rights agencies have warned that families celebrating Ramadan in Gaza face new horrors against the backdrop of severe aid shortages, mass displacement and psychological trauma.

“Many of our friends and loved ones were buried alive under the rubble,” Mohammed Hamouda, a displaced health worker in Rafah, told CNN. “Some of them have already died and others are waiting to die. These days are extremely difficult. We feel guilty that we are still alive.”

Looming assault in Rafah, no signs of a ceasefire

Boys and girls swaddled in puffy winter coats link arms as they march through the streets of Rafah. One child carries a sign in English that reads, “Stop our daily death.”

Rasmi Abu Al-Anin, 52, a demonstrator, told CNN on March 6 that children in Gaza “used to wait for this month to fast, pray, play with lanterns, play in the evening, rejoice and to wait for Eid.”

“However, with the advent of Ramadan, we hear nothing but the sound of aircraft, drones, threats and intimidation. How long will this death last? ” the man added.

This month, dozens of displaced civilians lined the streets of Rafah to demand an immediate ceasefire before Ramadan. Five months into the war, Palestinians in the city told CNN they are barely surviving the terror of persistent aerial bombardment.

Palestinians perform Friday prayers at the Al-Farouq Mosque, which was destroyed by Israeli bombardment, in Rafah, in southern Gaza, on March 8.

Even worshippers could not welcome the Islamic holy month in peace. At least three women were killed on Monday in an airstrike on a home in the Al-Junaina neighborhood, east of Rafah. Journalist Ahmad Hijazi told CNN that the bombardment struck just as members of the Al Barakat family awoke to eat suhoor – the predawn meal Muslims eat before starting their fast. Israeli special forces had launched “targeted raids” in the Hamad area of southern Gaza on Monday, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

Gazans there will see no relief in the coming days after negotiations for a truce between Israel and Hamas broke down this month, reigniting fears of an Israeli ground offensive in Rafah. Hamouda, a father of three, told CNN the threat of a ground assault “scares us because we are unarmed civilians.”

“[We want] to see our children grow up in front of us,” he said. “What scares us most is losing loved ones, and displacement.”

At least 1.7 million people in Gaza have been forcibly displaced – including 1.5 million who have fled to Rafah – according to the UN. Many displaced Palestinians are sheltering in crammed conditions that cannot offer basic access to sanitation. Market supplies are thin and food prices have spiraled. Parents have told CNN they go hungry so their children can eat what little is available.

Now, Hamouda says he is struggling to explain to his young children why they will not be able to feast on traditional Palestinian dishes or receive gifts this Ramadan.

Palestinian children in Rafah, in southern Gaza, sell Ramadan lanterns ahead of the Islamic holy month, on February 25.

‘Dire’ hunger in the north

These days, Jihad Abu Watfa, 27, finds himself riding his bicycle along the dusty streets of Beit Lahia, in northern Gaza. He watches as hungry children scavenge for food – but he cannot help them.

“No one can afford to buy flour, neither rich nor poor, because they do not have such money,” he told CNN. Children often search for food in the garbage, he said. “There are many people who (already) fast like it’s Ramadan,” he told CNN in late February, as the celebrations approached.

Levels of critical hunger are compounded in the north of the enclave, where Israel concentrated its military offensive in the early days of the war. Palestinians told CNN they resort to eating water-based soup mixed with herbs, custard or finger-sized biscuits because they have no access to nutrient-rich foods.

Elsewhere, hungry civilians desperately climb over each other at the first sign of aid – exposing themselves to potential danger. At least 118 Palestinians were killed after Israeli forces opened fire at a Gaza City food distribution site on February 29, drawing widespread condemnation. A witness told CNN many of the victims were killed when they were run over by trucks in the panic following the gunshots in what has become known as the “flour massacre.”

A Palestinian family break their fast among the rubble of their house, which was destroyed by Israeli bombardment, on the first day of Ramadan in Deir al-Balah, in northern Gaza, on March 11.

Some are forced to compete for parcels from infrequent and faulty aid drops. On Friday, at least five people were killed when airdropped parcels fell on them in the Al Shati camp, west of Gaza City, according to Khader Al-Za’anoun, a journalist for Wafa, the official Palestinian news agency. In a video obtained by CNN, an airdrop was seen going wrong when the parachute on a pallet malfunctioned.

Humanitarian agencies previously criticized the drops as inefficient and a degrading way of getting aid to Gazans, urging Israeli authorities to lift controls on land crossings into the enclave.

“People are fighting over each other to get to the parachutes,” AbdulQader Sabbah, a local journalist working for CNN in Gaza ,said of the aid drops. “I don’t bother to go as people would be fighting.”

Ahmed Zaida, 27, told CNN that Palestinians could only find dates and peas to break their fast on Monday in the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood of Gaza City, northern Gaza. “People here are resorting to eating herbs,” he said. “People go to the markets in the mornings and do not find anything they can buy.”

‘Thank God for everything’

Israel’s bombardment of Gaza has wiped out entire neighborhoods, crushed the medical system and razed hundreds of mosques – turning religious sanctuaries into relics of war. At least 1,000 of 1,200 mosques, including ancient sites, have been partially or completely destroyed as of February, the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs in Gaza told CNN.

Israeli attacks on Gaza since October 7 have killed more than 100 preachers, including religious scholars, imams, muezzins (those who perform the call to prayer), and hafiz (Muslims who have memorized the Quran), according to the ministry.

Palestinians perform the Friday noon prayers by the ruins of the al-Faruq mosque, destroyed by Israeli strikes in Rafah, in southern Gaza, on March 1.

Residents told CNN they cannot find enough space to attend nightly taraweeh prayers because places of worship have been destroyed. Taraweeh prayers are performed every night of Ramadan in a congregation. Limited access to water means others cannot make the obligatory ablution before prayer. Many are unable to share communal meals with relatives because forced displacement has separated families across the enclave.

“Ramadan usually has a lot of dinner invitations for our extended families. Nowadays, everybody from the family is in a different place,” said Mousa. “When was the last time I heard the call to prayer without the sound of Israeli drones? I don’t remember.”

Muslims in Gaza told CNN they are determined to perform daily rituals to try and find moments of relief among colossal devastation. “We are praying next to the mosques that have been destroyed. We say ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is great) when we are digging the displaced people out from under the rubble,” Hamouda, the health worker in Rafah, said.

“These are the basics of our faith; prayers, and helping others, and doing our best.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the date on which at least 118 Palestinians were killed at a Gaza City food distribution site.

CNN’s Abeer Salman, Celine Alkhaldi, Richard Allen Greene, Sophie Tanno and Paul P. Murphy contributed reporting.

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