Ramadan in Gaza: ‘We used to adorn our street, now everything around us is bleak’

Displaced families prepare to spend holy month in Rafah amid food shortages and fear of attack

Aseel Mousa in Gaza and Jason Burke in Jerusalem

Sun 10 Mar 2024

Seventy days after they were forced to leave their house in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, Hanaa al-Masry, her husband and their six children are preparing for Ramadan in their new home: a dilapidated tent. Here, there will be no decorations, no joyous family meals and no reading of the Qur’an under the lemon and orange trees in the garden.

The Muslim holy month – a time for friends and family as well as religious contemplation, prayer and fasting – starts on Monday and will be like none that anyone in Gaza can remember.

The Masry family fled Khan Younis after receiving leaflets from the Israeli military telling them to relocate for their own safety. They made their way to the city of Rafah on the border with Egypt and now live in a crowded makeshift camp, sleeping and eating amid a jumble of salvaged possessions.

“My daughters used to carefully save their money to buy decorations and every year I would chose a new Ramadan lantern,” Hanaa al-Masry, 37, said. “It is very depressing, very difficult.”

The Masry family’s tent in Rafah. Photograph: Aseel Mousa

This year, there will be no lanterns. Masry will prepare neither suhoor, the meal taken before the start of the ritual day-long fast, nor iftar at its end.

It saddens her: “I used to love preparing a meal of cheese, jam, beans and eggs to sustain my family throughout the fast and then something tasty for iftar.”

Conditions in Rafah are better than in the north of territory, where local health officials say 20 deaths by starvation have been recorded, but basics are still in short supply. Many are surviving on flatbread cooked over wood fires or basic gas hobs, and tinned goods trucked in by humanitarian agencies from Egypt. Half a kilo of sugar now costs $10 and salt is almost unobtainable. Fresh fruit or vegetables are rare and very expensive.

The family’s makeshift kitchen. Photograph: Aseel Mousa

“I am not the only one yearning to uphold our customs. My neighbours and I used to adorn our street with lights and lanterns, but now everything around us is bleak. The streets bear the scars of Israeli bombings, and the community is in mourning,” said al-Masry.

The war was triggered in October when Hamas militants attacked southern Israel, killing 1,200 people, mainly civilians, and abducting 250 more, of whom about half were freed in a short-lived truce in November.

More than 31,000 people in Gaza have been killed in the Israeli offensive launched after the Hamas attack, most of them women and children, according to officials in the territory. Much of it has been reduced to rubble.

Hanaa al-Masry’s daughter Lamar in their tent as the family prepare for Ramadan. Photograph: Aseel Mousa

Israel blames Hamas for the high civilian death toll, saying the militant organisation, which has run Gaza since 2007, uses civilians as human shields. Hamas denies the charge.

Hussein al-Awda, 37, arrived in Rafah more than a month ago after spending much of the war in a UN-run shelter near Khan Younis. A programme officer with an international NGO, he has barely eaten meat since the conflict began, and recently has been surviving on tinned beans.

“There are some nuts and dried fruits in the market, the sort of thing we would have to break our fast in Ramadan, but they are just so expensive. Iftar will just be more beans,” Awda said.

Electricity was cut off by Israel at the beginning of the conflict, most of the sanitation and power infrastructure has been destroyed and the minimal amounts of fuel allowed into the territory are insufficient for running pumps or generators. Everywhere, donkey carts have replaced cars as the principal mode of transport.

Children queuing for food in Rafah on Sunday. Photograph: Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images

Awda, whose house in Gaza City was destroyed in the first weeks of the war, spent all his savings on getting his wife and three young children to Cairo last month. He stayed to look after his elderly and unwell parents, who are too frail to travel.

“We’ve always been together for Ramadan. To be split up like this … I don’t know how to explain it to my children. My youngest is beginning to talk and I can only hear him on my phone if I can find some internet connection but even that is very hard,” he said.

Alaa al-Shurafa, a lecturer at the Islamic University, was told by the Israeli military to flee her home in Gaza City five months ago. Since then she has been living with her parents in a small room in an abandoned apartment block in Rafah.

Her family are scattered. One sister is in Gaza City, another is elsewhere in Rafah. “We are now isolated from our loved ones, uncertain of when we can return to our home in Gaza,” Shurafa said.

Palestinians transport their belongings on a donkey-pulled cart as they flee Khan Younis. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Looming over all those trying to celebrate Ramadan in Rafah is the prospect of an imminent attack. Israeli officials say Hamas leaders are based in the city along with four battalions of militants – the only major remaining fighting force of the Islamist organisation.

Though Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, pledged last week to continue to seek “total victory”, he is under intense international pressure to halt Israel’s military operations and allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza.

The prospect of a military assault in a city home to more than a million displaced people that is also a major logistics hub for aid operations has raised deep concerns. “We are just sitting here waiting for our fate … The hardest thing is we have no idea how long it will be like this,” said Awda.

Masry remembers watering the trees and roses in her garden in Khan Younis daily after the dawn prayer. “I used to find solace in sitting in my garden, reciting the Qur’an and offering prayers to God. Now, my garden lies in ruins.”


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