Flatbread for thousands: how a war-torn Gaza bakery is fighting hunger

Just a few weeks ago, the Rustom Bakery in southern Gaza was offering customers pizzas, shawarma sandwiches and Thai wraps, and even had a delivery service.

But after four weeks of constant Israeli bombardment, the bakery in the town of Khan Younis can only produce a single basic item: thin flatbread loaves for which thousands of people queue for hours every day.

Those loaves have become a critical commodity in a territory stalked by hunger after a month of siege. The bakery must cater for thousands of displaced people from northern Gaza and former customers of other bakeries forced to close by war, even as its own staff contend with the devastation around them.

Ahmed Rustom, 25, whose family owns the bakery, said that after closing for a few days after the war began in October, they decided to resume work even though many bakeries had been hit by Israeli strikes.

“The situation is difficult and dangerous, but we feel compelled to keep going for the sake of the people,” he said. His 15 workers were terrified when the building next door was hit. “Some of them left. I can’t stop them,” he added.

Up to a million displaced Palestinians have moved to southern Gaza after Israel asked them to evacuate the north “for their safety” as it pushes forward with air and ground attacks on Gaza City.

Despite the mounting need for food, many bakeries in the south have had to shut down “because of the danger and shortages of necessary supplies”, said Rustom. He said only four bakeries were operating in southern Gaza, compared with 20 before the war.

Families are going hungry, according to UN officials, after Israel banned the entry of fuel and goods, including food, into the aid-dependent territory. Since October 21, Israel has allowed a trickle of humanitarian supplies to reach Gaza via the territory’s sole crossing with Egypt, but UN officials have described the quantities arriving as “crumbs” compared with the needs of the 2.3mn Palestinians in the strip.

Philippe Lazzarini, head of UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, said this week after a visit to Gaza that he had never seen its people as hungry or thirsty.

“Everyone was just asking for water and food. Instead of being at school, learning, children were asking for a sip of water and a piece of bread,” he said. “It was heart-wrenching.”

More than 9,250 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli strikes on Gaza, the Hamas-controlled health ministry has said. Israel began its fierce bombardment of the strip in response to the worst attack in the country’s history, in which Hamas militants killed at least 1,400 people on October 7, according to Israeli government figures.

At the Rustom Bakery, the flour and fuel are provided by UNRWA free of charge. Workers begin sifting the flour at 10pm and bake through the night to produce 2,000 packets of the flatbread, each containing 50 loaves.

“These run out in two hours,” said Rustom. “I feel helpless and inadequate when there is no more bread.”

Some customers start queueing during the night. Rustom said he had found people sleeping on the street outside his bakery at 11pm. “When I asked why they were there, they said they were booking a place in the line,” he said.

Ramy al-Ashqar working at Rustom Bakery

Ramy al-Ashqar, 19, an information technology student, worked at the bakery part-time before the war, but went full-time after Israel launched its offensive.

He missed three days of work under pressure from his mother, whose fears “soared when she heard news of bakeries hit in the bombardment”.

“But when I found out that my uncles and brothers wait for hours to get bread, and sometimes they come back without it, my father agreed to let me go back,” said Ashqar. “This way I can get bread for my family and work at the same time.”

Outside the bakery, thousands waited in a line stretching to the end of the street. Om Mohamed al-Najjar, 36, accompanied by her small son, tried to hold back tears as she said she and her four children had been displaced into a UNRWA school now used as a shelter.

“They give each of us a loaf of bread and a small glass of water every day,” she said. “A man who came to visit friends in the school took pity on my son and gave us 20 shekels [$5]. I came to buy a packet of bread and I’ll get some canned food. I will also try to buy a gallon of water, but that requires another long wait.”

She broke down in tears when her son started screaming for a drink of water. Other women tried to console her, and a man interjected: “Calm down, you will get bread, and if you can’t, I’ll share with you what I get.”

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Yet tempers were flaring elsewhere in the queue after one man accused another of taking his place.

When the bread runs out people still waiting “sometimes yell abuse at us or try to attack us”, said Ali al-Saqqa, 61, a worker at the bakery. “They crowd around us and everyone appears to be at war with everyone else because they believe they have priority. Even the police can’t impose order.”

Despite these tensions, he is devoted to his work. He travels five kilometres each day to the bakery on foot, sometimes under Israeli bombardment. He had to move his family from their home in the north of Khan Younis to the west of the town after the Israelis told people in their area to evacuate.

His wife and grandchildren have begged him to stop working because they fear for his safety, but he believes he has a “responsibility” to continue.

“I work 14 hours a day at least. When there are Israeli strikes, I sleep in the bakery,” he said. “I can’t see a hungry child and do nothing about it.”