Blood ran freely over a cobbled Gaza street at dawn on Jan. 22, the fifth day of a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas militants.
But it was a welcome sight. Family butcher Husam Nasr was fleshing a freshly slaughtered 330-pound heifer.
“The meat will sell for 60 shekels a kilo (US$7 per pound),” he said. “That’s nearly three times what it was before the war.”
Nasr said he would have been able to sell the meat of four cows each day before Israel’s 22-day war to end rocket attacks on its southern towns by Hamas Islamists who control the Gaza Strip.
“But it will probably take two or three days to sell this. Not many people in Gaza can afford it now,” he said, making rapid, expert cuts to open the abdominal cavity and drop the steaming guts, intact, onto the pavement.
Half of Gaza’s 1.5 million people rely on food aid. They receive carbohydrates, fat and sugar but little fresh protein.
Gaza is a fertile place, where fruit and vegetables grow well. There are chicken farms and flocks of sheep and goats, but no cattle-raising operations in the enclave. At 90,000 acres its farmland is smaller than some ranches in Texas or Montana.
“This cow came from Egypt, a year ago,” said the butcher. That may not seem so unusual, given that south Gaza borders on the Egyptian Sinai. But the border is closed to trade.
So calves are smuggled in via tunnels under the border. They are dragged, bawling, into the light of Gaza from 20-metre-deep shafts, then duly fattened. But Israel bombed many of the tunnels, which weaken its chokehold on the Gaza Strip.
Another tempting but for now unreachable source of protein lies just to the west of Gaza in the Mediterranean Sea. There are lots of fish out there, but as of Jan. 22, no fresh catch had landed on the dock at Gaza for at least three weeks.
Every morning that week, an Israeli gunboat offshore let off several rounds of cannon and bursts of heavy machine-gun fire, to warn Gaza fishermen not to try sailing out to sea.
“Don’t eat the fish,” is advice whispered in restaurants. Clients note that electricity for freezers has been either nonexistent or highly intermittent during the conflict.
The people of Gaza are going to need plenty of energy for the cleanup and reconstruction job they now face. Men with shovels were clearing city streets on Jan. 22 of the rubble of Israeli bombing, shelling and demolition, while farmers stacked concrete breeze blocks and tin sheeting to make huts against the cold in places where their houses once stood.
Many people get by on flat-bread and sweet tea. Chicken is the most common meat, easy to raise, keep and kill. But its price too has doubled due to the disruption of normal life, trade and delivery from farms and smallholdings.
Import of livestock feed is controlled by Israel and amounts allowed in recently are not sufficient, say Gaza Palestinians.
So for many, the chickpea paste of traditional Middle East hummus is the cheapest, most reliable source of protein. Eggs are a little luxury, and lamb or mutton is very scarce.
In the early-morning light Jan. 22, two boys, one mounted on a sleepy-eyed donkey, one with a little dog, drove their herd of sheep up the hill through the flattened rubble of Gaza’s Jabalya suburb, to graze them over the ridge.
But this land is now an enormous plowed field of earth and broken concrete, where Israel massed its tanks and troops above the city. There is hardly a blade of grass left.
A little way east, the slopes looked enticingly green and succulent. But that grazing was in Israel.