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Aid is only trickling into north Gaza despite imminent famine

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We're going to hear now from three families in north Gaza who are struggling to find food and water. The U.N. says famine is imminent there, as hundreds of thousands of people are facing the highest levels of starvation. And despite urgent calls for help, aid is only trickling in. NPR's Fatma Tanis reports with Gaza photojournalist Omar El Qattaa.

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: In front of the decimated residential buildings of Gaza City, there are informal street markets where people are selling or trading canned foods, small amounts of flour and grains. Narmeen Tafesh and her five children are at the market looking for something they can buy, but everything is so expensive. And with no jobs, most people don't have an income.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

NARMEEN TAFESH: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: They're shocked to see that two pounds of rotten-looking potatoes are selling for 40 shekels. That's more than $10.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: And two pounds of rice, which used to be less than $2, is now going for 20.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

TAFESH: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: Tafesh and her kids turned back home without being able to buy anything. After Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, Israel responded first with heavy bombardment in the north. Narmeen Tafesh was stuck. Most of her family were in the south, and her husband was away for work. Tafesh heard stories of people being killed while trying to evacuate, so she decided to stay.

TAFESH: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: Now she's the only provider for her family. They haven't received any humanitarian aid since the war began. Her oldest son, Yousef Tafesh, is 14, and he helps his mother by searching for pieces of wood to make a fire since Israel cut off fuel and electricity.

YOUSEF TAFESH: (Through interpreter) First there was flour until it ran out. Then we could get wheat, and that ran out. Then corn kernels. Then we tried animal feed. Now my mom makes us a pudding with water and starch, and we eat that.

TANIS: Tafesh says she can't bear the hardship anymore. The hunger is all-consuming. The lack of safety limits their ability to search for the rare aid convoys that come or the airdrop packages.

TAFESH: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: There's no milk, no protein, no bread, no clean water. Her kids constantly cry from hunger, and she sees them wasting away - their eyes sunken, bones protruding.

TAFESH: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: Her youngest boy is 4 years old, and before the war, he was energetic. Now he spends most of the day sleeping. Tafesh says she goes to bed every night in fear of waking up to find one of her children dead. According to UNICEF, acute malnutrition in Gaza has doubled among children under 2 in the last month. And at least 23 children have starved to death, according to Gaza health officials. Most people in the north don't have access to hospitals.

RIWAA MASSOUD SAED: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: In another neighborhood, Riwaa Massoud Saed is staying with her daughters at her sister's house after surviving multiple airstrikes. In mid-November, they were sheltering at a U.N.-run school when an Israeli airstrike killed her husband and several others. Another airstrike killed her brother. A third one killed one of her daughters.

SAED: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: She struggles to find the words to describe the horrors she's seen. In the first two weeks of the war, Israel cut off all food, fuel, medicine and other supplies to Gaza. Then, under pressure from other countries, it has since allowed some aid in but nowhere near what's needed, according to aid groups. Israel says it's not putting limits on humanitarian aid. Recently, with the collapse of public order in the north of the Strip, it's also been really difficult to get supplies there, and people are now running out of their last-resort foods like animal feed.

SAED: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: Nowadays, Saed goes outside and forages for whatever leafy plants and weeds she can find, then boils them, sometimes in seawater, to make a soup just to keep the hunger pangs at bay.

SAED: (Through interpreter) Some of the foods we are now forced to feed our children, may God spare you. I mean, the donkeys refuse to eat it. The animal feed is tasteless. It's like chewing on wood, and it's hard to digest.

TANIS: People are also getting sick because of the unsanitary water. The U.N. says hepatitis A is spreading, among other diseases. Saed's daughter, Aya Saed, is anemic. The 15-year-old says she doesn't know how much longer any of them can go on like this.

AYA SAED: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: "If the bombs don't kill us, the hunger will," she says as an Israeli drone hovers above. She blames Israel and the U.S. for what's happening to them.

AYA: (Through interpreter) This Biden - what is he doing to us? Why has he left us like this? Why has he left us like this?

(Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: In Beit Lahia, one of Gaza's most-destroyed neighborhoods, 59-year-old Marwan Saleh is taking care of his grandchildren.

MARWAN SALEH: (Through interpreter) We used to eat grass and weeds, but that ran out. Now we grind the pits of dates to make sort of a coffee, and we are eating succulents. They taste absolutely horrible, but we have to eat it to stay alive.

TANIS: Those succulent plants only grow on the edges of Gaza, near the Israeli border where there might be Israeli soldiers. Saleh says he still goes, knowing he could be shot, because there's nothing else left for them to consume.

SALEH: (Through interpreter) Bring us the aid by land in a normal way, not from the air or the sea, where people have to clamor and fight for it. Help us in an honorable way, not in a humiliating way.

TANIS: The world's leading experts on hunger said in a report this week that more than half of Gaza's entire population is experiencing catastrophic food insecurity. That's 1.1 million people. Before Gaza, the worst case of starvation in recent history was Somalia in 2011. That's when 250,000 people starved to death over the course of a year. Experts fear Gaza will be comparable without an immediate cease-fire and massive humanitarian aid effort. Aid officials say there's a small window now to pull back Gaza from famine. For that, they say, Israel needs to open more border crossings, ease the inspection process and provide safe routes for aid convoys. Palestinians in Gaza are struggling to express their frustration and disbelief at the lack of help. They feel abandoned by the world.

SAED: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: "Every day, I am dying from malnutrition. All of us in north Gaza are dying," says Riwaa Massoud Saed.

SAED: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: "And you just watch us. You just keep watching." Fatma Tanis, NPR News, Jerusalem, with Omar El Qattaa in Gaza City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Fatma Tanis