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In Gaza, war stretches meager rations further

The al-Dali family cooked food for 21 in a Shati refugee camp in Gaza City on Monday. The family has to take turns sleeping. The al-Dali family cooked food for 21 in a Shati refugee camp in Gaza City on Monday. The family has to take turns sleeping. (Adel Hana/Associated Press)
By Ibrahim Barzak and Karin Laub
Associated Press / January 14, 2009
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GAZA CITY - In 18 days of war, Hisham Abu Ramadan has fallen into a new routine.

He gets up before dawn and goes to his mosque, not just to pray, but to charge his cellphone, because it's the only place in the neighborhood with a generator. After prayers, he gets in line at a nearby bakery, where as many as 150 people are already waiting to buy bread.

"We've gotten accustomed to this life," said Abu Ramadan, 37.

Others face a tougher time.

In Khaled al-Dali's two-room shack in the Shati refugee camp, 21 people - half of them relatives who fled the fighting - take turns sleeping because there aren't enough mattresses to go around. Without fuel, the family cooks on fires made from trash. He has sold most of his furniture to buy food.

Gazans have become adept at coping with conflict, including curfews, street clashes and, most recently, severe shortages created by an 18-month border blockade by Israel and Egypt.

But Israel's unprecedented assault on Gaza's Hamas rulers - with 900 people killed, some 3,400 wounded and tens of thousands displaced - has strained even their survival skills.

The massive bombardment has badly disrupted the flow of electricity and water, already stop and go before the start of the war. Israel has cut Gaza in half, cutting north and south off from each other.

During the short daylight hours, shoppers crowd into the few open stores and outdoor markets in a hunt for scarce goods, from diapers to dairy products. At dusk, streets quickly become deserted as civilians retreat indoors, for fear of being mistaken for militants by Israel's military.

"Everything is difficult now - eating, drinking, moving," said Mohammed Saleimeh, 26. When electricity comes on in the Nusseirat refugee camp in central Gaza, the women in his 20-member family rush to bake bread. When water comes on, they wash the cloth diapers they now use instead of disposable ones.

In southern Israel, Hamas rocket barrages have also severely disrupted life, sending people rushing into shelters when air raid sirens go off. Many businesses have closed and classes have been suspended, but residents have adequate supplies of food, electricity, and fuel.

In Gaza, the ability to cope largely depends on how much of a buffer, in food and cash, families had going into the war, and in part on their ties to Gaza's Hamas rulers.

Mohammed Awad, a senior Hamas official, told the movement's Al Aqsa TV on Sunday that 25,000 people on the Hamas payroll, from police to civil servants, have received their December salaries.

Hamas members said the money is being paid in cash, with Hamas activists making the rounds to distribute it. A man with a trim beard was seen handing out money from a suitcase in the hallway of a building in one Gaza City neighborhood, then asking employees to sign a receipt.

Abu Ramadan is a former member of the security forces ousted during Hamas's violent takeover of Gaza in June 2007, and still draws his salary from a Hamas rival, the West Bank government of moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He can still afford to buy drinking water and fill up the tank on the roof of his high-rise in the Sheik Radwan neighborhood of Gaza City.

But electricity outages are frequent - power came on Sunday for the first time in eight days. So he heads to the mosque each morning to charge his cellphone, instead of praying at home, as he did before the war.

His family of five eats lentils, beans, and canned foods. Tomatoes are available, but have tripled in price, to 75 cents a pound.

In the Shati camp, Dali, 33, was already broke at the start of the fighting, struggling to feed his wife and seven children, ages 5 through 14. A few days ago, he took in his sister, her husband, and their 10 children, who fled shelling outside their home close to the border with Israel.

They had enough food to feed them through yesterday, Dali said, and he didn't know where the next meal would come from.

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