GAZA and LONDON — The possibility of a “full-fledged famine” looms large across the entire Gaza Strip amid the Israel-Hamas war, humanitarian groups have warned — but especially in northern Gaza, where some people there say they’re using bird feed in place of flour to stave off starvation.
Northern Gaza has been largely cut off for months now, according to the United Nations, and aid trucks carrying flour arrive sporadically and are swarmed by hundreds of hungry people.
United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) officials also say Israel provides too few authorizations to make deliveries into some areas and that heavy fighting often makes it too dangerous for aid workers to operate. The aid arriving in northern Gaza has been particularly restricted, the U.N. says. Israel disputes the criticisms.
“For more than two months, we have not received flour due to the difficulty of aid entering and the scarcity of flour in the area,” Sami Abu Sweilem, a 55-year-old father who is sheltering in a UNRWA school in northern Gaza, told ABC News.
“Children almost died of hunger, so we thought of a way to save our children from death,” he said, explaining how he’s been using bird feed and animal fodder in place of precious flour.
“I saw one of the displaced people in an area neighboring us with a bag of corn from a store and he told me that he wanted to grind it to make bread. I thought it was a good idea and we tried it,” Abu Sweilem said. Soon others followed suit, he said, and now it’s even difficult to find animal feed to grind.
Israel Palestine conflict.Palestinian people holding empty bowls try to reach out for food distributed by volunteers at donation point as Israeli attacks continue in Dair El-Balah, Gaza on Jan. 26, 2024. Omar Ashtaw/apa/Zuma Press
Almost all Gazans are now reliant on food aid for sustenance, according to the United Nations. The World Food Programme estimates that 26% of the population in Gaza is now facing starvation. Roughly two-thirds of Gazans relied on food aid before the start of the war, the WFP has said.
“If things continue as they are, or if things worsen, we are looking at a full-fledged famine within the next six months,” Arif Husain, the chief economist for the WFP, told ABC News.
“We were searching for flour and constantly waiting for aid,” Salwa Diab told ABC News on the phone from her refuge at the Gaza Training College in Gaza City. But when the aid never came, she said she was forced to turn her bird feed into bread.
“When I made this bread for the first time, my children thought it was like a normal loaf of bread. They were very happy with it and ate it and were forced to accept its taste,” she said, adding: “When the bread is cold, it becomes so bad that we cannot eat it, unfortunately, but when the children are hungry, they are forced to eat it in order to silence their hunger. For more than a month, I have been making this bread when we have available fodder.”
“The aid that comes very rarely, we know about it through the news,” 42-year-old Khaled Nabhan told ABC News in a phone call from Gaza City.
“People come out onto the streets, either on the coast road or Salah al-Din Street, waiting for the aid to enter,” he said, estimating that the crowds can reach the thousands and adding that people have been injured due to stampeding and gunfire.
“The question now is, when these fodders run out, how will we get flour,” Nabhan asked. “This war has been a quest to escape death, either from bombing or from hunger,” he added.
Palestinian people holding empty bowls try to reach out for food distributed by volunteers at donation point as Israeli attacks continue in Dair El-Balah, Gaza on January 26, 2024. APA/Shutterstock
Israeli officials, who control the routes into Gaza, say they send 200 trucks of food and aid a day into the Gaza Strip. Before the war, 500 trucks were being sent to Gaza, according to UNRWA.
Israeli officials denied accusations they’re not letting enough food into Gaza and blamed the Hamas terrorist group for stealing aid. They said they conduct necessary inspections on the trucks, and also blamed the U.N. and other aid agencies for creating logistical bottlenecks.
The U.N. has disputed the Israeli officials’ claims, saying, on average, far less than 200 trucks are entering Gaza most days. U.N. officials have said excessive Israeli inspections, as well as arbitrary rejections of some aid, frequently hold up deliveries.
“We are getting the average of trucks near 80, 80 trucks per day,” UNRWA spokesman Adnan Abu Hasna told ABC News.
UNRWA has come under fire over the last week, as a dossier from the Israeli military recently revealed new allegations against some UNRWA employees who are accused of being involved in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel. The report obtained by ABC News alleges that 13 UNRWA employees participated in the Oct. 7 attack, including six employees who allegedly infiltrated Israel.
The U.N. condemned the alleged actions and said nine of those workers were fired. Two of the accused workers are reportedly dead and one has not immediately been identified, the U.N. said.
Not long after the allegations were announced Friday, several nations and other organizations, including the U.S. State Department, announced they would pause funding to UNRWA as the investigation continues.
On Monday, a coalition of 20 nongovernmental organizations, including Save the Children, sent out a letter condemning the funding pause, saying innocent Gazans will be left to suffer without aid from UNRWA.
“We are shocked by the reckless decision to cut a lifeline for an entire population by some of the very countries that had called for aid in Gaza to be stepped up and for humanitarians to be protected while doing their job,” the statement read.
UNRWA, which is the primary aid provider in Gaza and shelters about 1.4 million people, has warned that the funding suspension could impact its operations within weeks.
“If funding remains suspended, we will most likely be forced to shut down our operations by end of February,” UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini wrote Thursday on X, formerly known as Twitter.
More than 27,000 people have been killed in Gaza and over 65,000 others injured since Oct. 7, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry. Since then, in Israel, at least 1,200 people have been killed and 6,900 others injured, according to the Israeli prime minister’s office. Israeli officials say 556 Israel Defense Forces soldiers have been killed, including 221 since the ground operations in Gaza began.
ABC News’ Guy Davies, Samy Zayara and Patrick Reevell contributed to this report.