Forbidden Stories
Gaza Project

Wild Grass in the Rubble: hunger in northern Gaza through the eyes of the Khair Al-Din brothers

After eight months of drone attacks and bombardments in Gaza by the Israeli military, brothers Basel and Moumen Khair Al-Din, both Palestinian journalists, recount how they were nearly killed while reporting. After a brush with death, they’ve been forced to reduce their coverage in the north of the enclave. Forbidden Stories and its partners have continued their work on the mass starvation hitting residents of northern Gaza.

(Visual : Mélody Da Fonseca)

By Aïda Delpuech

June 25, 2024

Additional reporting by Madjid Zerrouky (Le Monde)

Breathing hard, as if after a chase, Basel Khair Al-Din searched the sky with feverish eyes for the machine that nearly took his life. Despite the fear, he began filming the scene, describing what had just happened.

“We were filming in Beit Lahia, specifically in Sakanet Fado’us area, the occupation targeted us with two drone missiles,” Khair Al-Din told the camera.

In late morning on February 18, 2024, Khair Al-Din and his brother, Moumen Khair Al-Din, traversed Beit Lahia’s abandoned fields in the agricultural zone of the northernmost Gaza Strip. The two journalists were only five kilometers from the Erez border post, the main crossing point to Israel. Closed since October 7, 2023, following Hamas’s terrorist attack on Israeli soil and the beginning of Israel’s war on Gaza – it was reopened by Israel early May.

That morning, the sky was ashen. The two brothers had been sent by Qatari media channel Al Jazeera (Al Jazeera Mubasher) to document the starvation hitting residents of northern Gaza, who are cut off from the rest of the territory. On October 13, the Israeli army had ordered the population to evacuate the zone, but since has isolated it from the rest of the Gaza Strip, leaving more than 300,000 people trapped there. Residents face severe food insecurity, and many families have resorted to gathering shoots of khobiza, or mallow plant, a resilient wild grass that has survived the airstrikes on the fields. 

“The fate of anyone who doesn’t eat it is death,” Khair Al-Din said, in a call with Le Monde and Forbidden Stories.

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A report silenced

On this day Khair Al-Din and his brother had already visited this area of northern Gaza several times as reporters. Now, they were documenting the daily life of a single family, who had decided to collect khobiza in spite of the dangers associated with life so close to the border.

The journalist recalled that he spent an hour with the family before they started filming.

“We made a small fire and prepared tea,” he said. 

The two brothers then started recording background shots, including a child collecting khobiza amid the debris. They pointed the camera away from the border to avoid suspicion from the soldiers stationed at the checkpoint. 

“We started filming. Eight seconds later, we were targeted by the first drone strike. Thank God it did not explode,” Khair Al-Din said.

Basel Khair Al-Din’s instagram post from February 18, 2024: “I didn’t know this photo would be the last one until we were targeted by a drone strike in the residential area of Sakanet Fado’us north of the town of Beit Lahia, while preparing a report on collecting herbs to stop child hunger. Thank God, we survived this time too.” (Credit: Moumen Khair Al-Din)

The two journalists only had time to shelter behind a low concrete wall before the second missile was fired, one minute after the first. They took off, running three kilometers without stopping before removing their press vests and hiding them beneath their jackets.

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With an analysis from Earshot using a video that Basel Khair Al-Din shared, Forbidden Stories and its partners identified the type of drone that was  “moving in a circular motion directly above the camera” of the two journalists, and that potentially targeted them: the IAI Heron-Eitan drone, which was developed by the Israeli company Israel Aerospace Industries. However, it is not possible to confirm whether this drone carried out the strike.

Although physically fine, the two brothers were shaken. Less than two months had passed since their family home in Beit Lahia was leveled, killing 23 of their family members and neighbors, including their brother Ahmed, who was also a journalist.

In response to the consortium’s inquiries, the Israeli military said that on “February 18th, the Israel Defense Forces struck Hamas military infrastructure, roughly 300 meters away” from where the two journalists were. (Hamas is described by the United States and the European Union as a terrorist organization.)

Although it is difficult to say whether they were targeted or not, the fact remains that the two brothers dramatically decreased their workload: Basel estimates they take on around 10% of the work they did previously. They were also very cautious about when they wore their press jackets, keeping them under their clothes right until they started filming.

“These jackets are supposed to identify and protect us,” Khair Al-Din said. “But they nearly got us killed, which has happened to many of our colleagues.”

Four months after the attack, the humanitarian situation in Gaza is desperate. Forbidden Stories and its partners decided to pursue Basel and Moumen Khair Al-Din’s story, looking into the deprivation suffered by inhabitants of northern Gaza and the survival mechanisms that the population is using to stay alive.

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“The situation is tragic”

Northern Gaza has been under siege for eight months—cut off from the rest of the territory. 

“There is famine — full-blown famine in the north, and it’s moving its way south,” UN World Food Programme Executive Director Cindy McCain said on May 3. 

The health system in the north of Gaza is also in a desperate situation. On May 21, 2024, Israeli forces attacked the Al-Awda hospital, one of the biggest complexes in the area, which had already been damaged. Two days later, Kamal Adwan—the only pediatric hospital in northern Gaza—was also bombed.  

But on top of the war itself, starvation has also been deadly. Just feeding oneself is a daily challenge.

Children gathered in Beit Lahia waiting for khobiza-based bread distribution (Credit: Saïd Ahmad Kilani)

Doctor Hussam Abu Safiya, who directs Kamal Adwan hospital’s pediatric wing, told Human Rights Watch in April that 26 children had died due to complications from starvation. Nine children out of ten already face severe food insecurity, according to a UNICEF report based on data collected from December 2023 to April 2024. The World Health Organization reports the outbreak of diseases such as hepatitis A.

“The situation is tragic,” said Ahmed Abu Qamar, a journalist from the Jabalia refugee camp who was forced to leave his home with his family, along with more than 150,000 people, following the Israeli army’s ground invasion on May 12, 2024. “We do not have potable water … Bread with a bit of ‘zaatar’ [thyme] or favas are meals that we consider hearty, and that we can have only on the best days.

Near food distribution sites, the scenes of recurrent massacres, prices for food staples have skyrocketed. Any wheat flour that people manage to find is sold for exorbitant prices—1,000-1,500 shekels for 25kg, more than 40 times its usual price. Some inhabitants have resorted to eating animal feed. 

Others have had no choice but to throw together the plants growing out of the rubble into makeshift recipes. “Any plant that the earth gives us, we turn into food,” Saïd Kilani, a photojournalist and resident of northern Gaza, told Forbidden Stories.

In April, the north of the Gaza Strip had been assessed on the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) as Phase 5, the highest stage, by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), founded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). 

A little girl runs looking for drinking water amid the rubble of Beit Lahia (Credit: Saïd Ahmad Kilani)

However, the Famine Review Committee (FRC), a United Nations body, recently refined this finding, stating on June 17 that it did not have sufficient data since the beginning of April – due to lack of access in the field – to be able to classify northern Gaza as a famine situation. This in no way “changes the fact that extreme human suffering is without a doubt currently ongoing in the Gaza Strip  …  All actors should not wait until a Famine classification for the current period is made to act accordingly,” said the FRC.

Eating at the risk of death

“Khobiza has helped the Palestinian cause more than any other country in the world,” young Gazan video journalist Abboud Battah, posted on his Instagram channel with 3.4 million followers. 

Khobiza, which grows after the first winter rains, can be found in fields and on street corners. It was appreciated before the war for its nutritional properties and spinach-like taste. Usually cooked in a soup, the plant has saved many families from starvation in the Gaza Strip over the past several months.

But collecting plant leaves can be dangerous and even deadly. Navin Anan Mustapha, a 27-year-old mother seven months pregnant with her fifth child, remembers the day in late March, in the middle of Ramadan. Like every morning, her husband had gone out to glean khobiza leaves to feed his children.

“While I was preparing food for the children,” Mustapha said, “I learned of the martyrdom [death] of my husband, after an Apache helicopter from the occupying army opened fire on everyone in the area.” According to Mustapha, the attack left one person dead and around thirty injured.

Navin Anan Mustapha and her four children, showing a photo of her husband killed by the Israeli army while harvesting khobiza leaves in Beit Lahia (Credit: Saïd Ahmad Kilani)

Despite the danger and the grief, the young mother returned to the fields the very next day, hoping to find something to feed her children: “I haven’t had time to mourn, the grief in my heart is immense,” she said.

In Beit Lahia, the last city before Israel’s security barrier in the northern Gaza Strip, the Israeli army’s bombings and bulldozers have razed most agricultural lands. The few parcels spared are essentially inaccessible to farmers and are systematically targeted by Israeli forces. Once known for their strawberries during the “red gold” season, these formerly fertile lands are destitute.

Since, the winter rains have dried up and the population of Gaza can no longer count on the wild plants to survive. “It’s the final judgment day,” Kilani, the photojournalist, said “We’ve lost everything.”

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