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Inside Gaza: Malnutrition and shortages

Family meal at the home of Fauzi Abu Gerada
The UN says the carbohydrate-rich diet of many Gazans causes malnutrition

By Paul Wood
BBC News, Gaza

People are not starving in Gaza but there is what the aid agencies call "food insecurity". To see what this means we visited the family of Fauzi Abu Gerada in Gaza City.

It is dusk, a crescent moon was just visible overhead, and Fauzi has lit a fire. This is for cooking, heat, and light, as the electricity is still off in Gaza City.

Fauzi is 40 years old and has been unemployed since the intifada that started in 2000 prevented him from crossing into Israel to work as a labourer.

His wife and six children all live with him in a single-roomed house, scraping by on food aid from the United Nations and others.

"I have no income to feed my children. Sometimes I cannot even give them bread," he told me. "We beg some food from here, and some food from there. Our life is begging."

Looking despairingly at the breeze block and wood shack which was their home, he adds: "Eight people all live in this one room here. The water comes in in the winter but I don't even have money for a plastic sheet to put on the roof.

"We are suffering. It's like living underground. Once I thought I'd burn the house down with everybody in it just to escape this misery."

People were hungry, literally. There was a shortage of everything here, including food, and we actually ran out for a couple of days
John Ging
Head of Gaza operation, UNRWA

The family's diet is heavy in bread, rice and vegetable oil. Earlier this month, a leaked report from the International Committee of the Red Cross found that this kind of diet - carbohydrate-rich, but lacking in vitamins - was causing malnutrition among Gaza's children.

On Thursday, Israel lifted its closure of the border crossings into Gaza to allow in much needed international humanitarian aid, mainly food.

Journalists were also allowed in for the first time in weeks. We walked the quarter mile of no-man's-land between the Israeli and Palestinian checkpoints, past the ruins of buildings hit by Israeli airstrikes.

Our arrival was filmed by Gaza TV. Such is the feeling of isolation here that journalists coming in from the outside world is seen as an event in itself.

As we waited for our car to arrive, a bullet whined overhead. "Israeli," one of the Palestinian porters said, unconcerned at what was, apparently a regular event.

Empty warehouses

Over the past month, the border crossings have been open for just five days. That is why the UN's food warehouses here are empty.

The food which came in on Thursday went straight to distribution centres. There is no slack in the system.

Gaza map

John Ging, head of the UN's Gaza relief operations, met me in one of his empty warehouses.

He reminded me that more than a million people in Gaza depended on UN for their next meal.

"Daily life is a struggle to survive. People were hungry, literally. There was a shortage of everything here, including food, and we actually ran out for a couple of days," he said, looking back over the past month.

He went on: "The fact that it continues to get worse and worse adds to the despair… so we're searching desperately for reasons to have realistic hope."

Mr Ging called on both sides - Israel and the Palestinians - to take action that would build confidence.

Rocket fire from Gaza into Israel had to stop, he said. And Israel had to stop punishing the whole of Gaza for such incidents: "Otherwise you give the agenda to people who are firing rockets."

Crumbling ceasefire

Tension has risen in Gaza over the past month as the ceasefire with Israel has been progressively breaking down. There seems little optimism, on either side, that the already shaky truce can be sustained when it comes up for renewal in two weeks' time.

Mahmoud Zahar, perhaps the most influential member of the Hamas leadership in Gaza, told me that peace was in Israel's hands.

"It depends on the Israeli side," he said. "If they are going to commit to what we already agreed upon - stoppage of all aggression against the Palestinian people, opening the gates for free communication on a commercial level. The people will discuss this thoroughly."

He added: "We have to defend ourselves against the Israeli aggression by all means, as we are accustomed to do."

The Palestinian armed groups are meeting now to discuss their next move against what they see as continuing Israeli aggression.

Israel, too, is considering whether it will have to take what it would consider pre-emptive action against a gathering threat.

If the ceasefire is not revived, if there is closure once again, Fauzi's family and thousands of others like it can expect much more misery.



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