Ramadan, a festive time in many parts of the Muslim world, is bleak in Gaza because basic and traditional foodstuffs are unavailable due to the Israeli blockade, or out of reach due to soaring prices and poverty, according to officials.
"Items such as tea, cheese and powdered milk are not generally allowed to be imported into Gaza by the private sector, according to the Israeli authorities," said Hamada Al-Bayari from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Gaza.
In the early hours before ‘Iftar’, a family meal before the daily fast begins at dawn, Gaza City’s central marketplace, Palestine Square, is bustling with shoppers, but many Gazans say they struggle to find and afford traditional Ramadan foods like pickles, dates and jam due to a more than two-year Israeli blockade of the territory.
"People do not have enough money to buy [special food] for Ramadan," said Mohammed Al-Halu, 40, a father of four from Gaza City. "The borders are closed; there are products from the tunnels [along the Egyptian border], but the prices are very high."
"Market prices in Gaza have increased dramatically over the past two years, and the price of fruit, vegetables and processed foods remains high," said Al-Bayari.
"The level of poverty and unemployment is so high, people cannot afford to pay the prices," said UN World Food Programme (WFP) officer Jeannoel Gentile in Gaza. There is a shortage of coffee, tomato paste, canned meats, and Ramadan sweets like `halwa’, while the availability of fresh meat is precarious, said Gentile.
According to a July report from the Humanitarian Policy Group on protection and livelihoods in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, prior to the 23-day Israeli offensive which ended on 18 January 2009, 56 percent of the population were food insecure, a figure thought to have risen to over 76 percent as a result of the conflict.
A June 2009 report by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said a household survey in May 2008 showed that, even then, over 70 percent of Gazans were living in poverty, with monthly incomes of less than US$250 for a family of 7-9 members.
Commodities Entering Gaza
The logistics cluster, and interagency aid group led by WFP, is in continuous contact with Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) as to what commodities are allowed to enter Gaza; it is unclear exactly which items are prohibited.
"Only humanitarian supplies can enter [Gaza], including medical supplies and food supplies that qualify as basic needs of the population stipulated by international organizations," Israeli Defence Ministry spokesperson Shlomo Dror told IRIN.
"About 100 trucks enter [Gaza] per day with all the supplies via Kerem Shalom crossing, in addition to wheat via Karni [crossing], and fuel and gas supplies via Nahel Oz [fuel depot]," said Dror.
In July 2009, the daily average number of trucks entering Gaza via Israeli-controlled crossings was 83, while in January 2007 the daily average was 631, just before the Hamas electoral victory in the legislative council elections, said Al-Bayari.
"Just 15 percent of the food commodities necessary for the Gaza population are allowed to enter via Israeli-controlled crossings, while another 15-20 percent of the necessary food commodities enter via underground tunnels along the Gaza-Egypt border, meaning about 30 percent of food supply needs are being met," said Rafiq Al-Madhoun, food security officer with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in Gaza.
People try to meet their basic food needs from products entering Gaza via tunnel. However, tunnel food has often been poorly stored and prices are high, said Al-Madhoun.
Many Gaza residents blame Egypt for their suffering, since the Rafah crossing on the Gaza-Egypt border remains closed to imports.
"The country lacks an economy; there are no jobs," said 70-year-old Um Fahed, scouring the market for affordable food to put on her Ramadan table. "Egypt must open Rafah crossing so I can feed my grandchildren."
US$3 million worth of private sector goods, including commodities like milk and cheese, were confiscated by the Egyptian authorities, according to a Hamas member who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity and claimed to own and operate four tunnels.
"The tunnels are often attacked," said the alleged tunnel owner, explaining that many tunnels are earmarked for different types of imports. "Some are strictly for Hamas and others for electronics," he said.
The Egyptian representative to the Palestinian territories in Ramallah (West Bank) declined to comment. The Egyptian consulate in Gaza has been closed since Hamas took control in June 2007.
UNRWA Ramadan Appeal
Meanwhile, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) launched a Gaza Ramadan Appeal for US$181 million on 17 August, in a bid to restore "a minimum standard of dignity" to Palestinian refugees living in the Strip.
So far the only firm pledge is from the UAE Red Crescent Society – US$100,000 in cash and hot meals during Ramadan to refugees in Gaza, said Sami Mshasha, UNRWA spokesperson in Jerusalem.