Khan Younis, Gaza – On the pavement outside Jamil Abu Assi’s home in the southern Gaza town of Bani Suhaila east of Khan Younis, the 31-year-old and his cousins are busy cooking large cauldrons of food.
Abu Assi once cooked home meals based on requests from people. But after an Israeli air raid destroyed his kitchen during the 2014 Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip, he shifted gears.
His family still cooks, but now specifically with the aim of helping those who have been displaced by Israel’s attacks and siege on Gaza. It’s a mission that’s being tested like never before.
According to the United Nations, one million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have been internally displaced since Israel began bombarding the territory on October 7. The blockaded enclave’s total population is 2.3 million. Many have moved to the south of the Strip following repeated warnings from the Israeli military to leave the north.
Every day, the family cooks 2,000 meals that feed some of those who have arrived in Khan Younis, swelling the southern city’s population to more than half a million from about 220,000 in 2021.
“I start my morning searching for wood because we do not have cooking gas,” he told Al Jazeera, referring to the complete blockade on fuel supplies to Gaza enforced by Israel since October 7. But some days, fetching wood is risky, he said, given the town’s proximity to the Israel border. On Sunday, the Palestinian armed group Hamas — which governs the Gaza Strip — said it had pushed back an attempted Israeli raid into the Khan Younis area, in which an Israeli soldier was killed.
“I don’t want to put myself in danger,” Abu Assi said.
‘We try to do our part’
Abu Assi and his cousins have divided up their roles to be more efficient. One person is tasked with chopping onions, another with adding ingredients and stirring the pot, and a third with wrapping and packaging the meals.
Most of the meals include rice, lentils and freekeh, a cereal prepared by roasting green grain. Meat was previously a staple, but is now harder to get as many butchers have closed their shops after being damaged by Israeli bombs and amid a lack of supplies.
Many Palestinians who have moved to southern Gaza have taken shelter at schools run by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) — the UN agency for Palestinian refugees — believing those to be relatively safer spaces. Others are staying in cramped conditions with host families and communities. Some left the north with only the clothes on their backs, others with small backpacks.
“The schools are hardly places of refuge,” he said. “They are cemeteries for the living, without the basic necessities of life. We try to do our part, however small, in alleviating this crisis for the people.”
Israel’s devastating bombing campaign followed a surprise Hamas attack on southern Israel on October 7, leading to 1,400 people’s deaths. The Israeli bombardment of Gaza has since flattened entire neighbourhoods, and killed more than 4,600 Palestinians in 16 days, including 1,873 children and 1,023 women.
Yet, to Abu Assi — as to Palestinians across Gaza, Israel and the occupied West Bank — the latest aggression is only a reminder of a personal history.
‘Beautiful social solidarity’
Abu Assi is a third-generation refugee originally from Jaffa, where his grandparents were displaced in 1948 during what Palestinians refer to as the Nakba. More than 750,000 Palestinians were forcibly evicted from their lands and homes, some 500 towns and villages were destroyed, and thousands were killed in a process of ethnic cleansing carried out by Jewish militias and the military of the then-nascent Israeli state.
“Our grandfather told us that being a refugee is very hard to take, and that this bitterness will never be forgotten and is handed down to each generation,” Abu Assi recalled. “The pain in our hearts will never make us forgive Israel for what it has done and continues to do to us.”
The children affected by the war this time around will never be able to forget surviving without food, water or electricity, he said.
But amid the terror and trauma of missiles and the siege, a community has come together. Some people have approached the Abu Assi family to see if they too could also donate food to displaced Palestinians.
“There is a beautiful social solidarity in the city of Khan Younis,” Abu Assi said. “We cannot accept hungry people not being able to find food, so there has been this organic cooperation to make sure that initiative continues to operate.”
‘Feel safe among the people’
To accommodate the food needs of the rising displaced population that Khan Younis is hosting, Abu Assi has increased the number of cooking burners and divided the work among two teams.
Meal preparation starts at seven in the morning, and the cooking goes on until 2pm.
“We cannot leave our workplaces, but we told those who need food to come from two in the afternoon until 5pm,” Abu Assi said.
“Some citizens volunteer to distribute meals in their cars to the displaced, which is a nice gesture as many of the displaced do not have means of transportation nor know the area very well.”
Some families are grateful even just for rice — often for their only meal of the day.
Karama Musallam, a 40-year-old mother of five, was looking for food when she came upon the Abu Assi family.
Her family, including her 80-year-old mother-in-law, fled their home in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoon at the start of the war. They are staying at UNRWA school in Bani Suhaila.
Musallam does not know anyone or have relatives in and around Khan Younis.
“When I went out to look for food, I found these young men cooking and they gave me two meals so that it would be enough for my children,” she said.
“They told me that I could come every day and take whatever meals available,” she added. “That is why I felt safe among the people.”
“We are all one community.”