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April 2003 • Vol 3, No. 4 •

Hidden Hunger in Palestine

By Jonathan Cook

Palestinians, reduced by a year of Israeli military invasion to a society of “handout seekers,” are rapidly finding that even the handouts are drying up. That is the verdict of aid agencies, including the World Bank and the United Nations refugee agency UNRWA, both of which recently published reports on the humanitarian catastrophe unfurling in the West Bank and Gaza.

Sixty-year-old Mohamed Misleh hardly needed telling that. He had been nervously waiting all morning for UN supplies of rice, flour, sugar and oil in the dark corridors of the Charity Society’s offices in the West Bank town of Azzoun, along with three hundred other refugee families. The Israeli army had delayed entry of the UN aid convoy into the town for some two hours while soldiers searched for the key to open a large steel gate—the only official access into Azzoun since the army blocked it off from the main road with a row of giant concrete blocks. UN staff with three trucks sat on the verge as cars with yellow number-plates—Israeli settlers—streamed past on their way to and from Israel and the settlements of Ariel, Immanuel and Kedumim.

The UN last visited Azzoun, half way between Nablus and Qalqilya, three months ago. Like others there, Misleh had heard rumors of the agency’s financial crisis. Its commissioner-general, Peter Hansen, warned earlier this month that UNRWA’s warehouses would be empty of food within weeks unless the international community stumped up some $32 million. So far it has received a paltry $1.5 million.

Agitated and at the head of the queue, Misleh banged repeatedly on the desk where UNRWA staff were checking aid coupons, crying, “I have a wife and two children to feed.” Officials tried to reassure him that his voucher would be honored. Not everyone was so lucky. In a neighboring room an elderly woman was red-faced with tears as she pleaded with the Charity Society’s director, Dr. Adul-Rahman Abu-Haniya, to overrule UNRWA staff who had cancelled her coupon. Like dozens of others she had arrived at the UNRWA temporary distribution center to find that the agency had imposed a harsh new rule in an attempt to make depleted food stocks go further.

Any family that includes an employee of UNRWA, she was told, was ineligible for aid. She has a son working for the agency but said the family had no money left this month for food. Not so long ago most Palestinians would have considered it shameful to ask outside the family for help, but few can now afford the luxury of restraint, or dignity.

On Monday this week UNRWA officials and several refugee families scuffled in Azzoun’s back streets as the aid trucks packed up to leave, some of their food still unloaded. “It is difficult to turn people away when we know how desperately they need food for their children,” said Benyan Tabib, one of the local officials responsible for registering the refugees. “People have nothing left to survive on but scraps of aid from the UN, the Palestinian Authority and anyone in their family who is still employed.” Not many are.

According to a forthcoming World Bank report, at least half the adult population in the West Bank and some 70 percent in Gaza are unemployed. Most of those working are in low-paying jobs with the Palestinian Authority, such as teachers, civil servants and security officials, or with UNRWA. Up to 18 Palestinians depend on the earnings of each breadwinner, says the Bank.

Azzoun, a town of 13,000 inhabitants once prospered from its proximity to the Israeli coastal towns of Petah, Tikva and Kfar Sava. Local men made the short journey to work on Israeli construction sites or farms. But that is now a distant memory. Steadily the Israeli closure policy first imposed on the West Bank and Gaza in the early 1990s has been tightened so that today none but a handful of Palestinians is allowed to leave the territories.

The loss of jobs in Israel and the army’s destruction of the internal Palestinian economy have inflicted a grinding poverty on the population. Some 60 percent live below the poverty line, with most Palestinian families relying on aid handouts, including 1.3 million fed by UNRWA alone, up from a few tens of thousands before the Intifada.

Non-refugees must rely on the World Food Program, the International Red Cross, Save the Children and a host of smaller charities. The poverty is hitting children hardest. The rear windows of the Charity Society look out upon the playground of Azzoun’s junior school, where 80 children jostle for places on the climbing frame and a few rides. Most are wearing frayed clothes that have not been washed for days.

Less visible is the damage slowly being inflicted on their young bodies by lack of food and a restricted diet. “The stark fact is that almost a quarter of Palestinian children are suffering from acute or chronic malnutrition for purely man-made reasons,” Hansen wrote recently in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, referring to Israel’s internal closures that prevent trade between villages inside the West Bank and Gaza. The figures for malnutrition are comparable to Zimbabwe and Congo’s. Lack of nutrients, essential in bone and tissue-formation result in impaired growth, brain damage and compromised immune systems among children—what is termed “hidden hunger.”

According to a recent study by the United States Agency for International Development, four out of five Palestinian children are anemic, and half are consuming insufficient calories and are deficient in vitamin A. Dr. Abu-Haniya, one of Azzoun’s three doctors, says that there is food in the shops but many families have no income to buy basic items, and have now exhausted their savings. “Babies and young children need milk in their diet but families just cannot afford to pay for it,” he said. “Half the children I see are anemic, or have other signs of malnutrition.”

Two factors, says the World Bank, have slowed the slide into a humanitarian disaster. One has been sustained financial support from the international community, including the work of aid agencies and huge European and Arab donations to the Palestinian Authority. But the Bank’s director in the West Bank and Gaza, Nigel Roberts, warns that the problem is now so grave that even if support were doubled to $2 billion this year—an improbable scenario—the poverty level would fall only marginally, to 54 percent, by 2004. In fact, aid donations, as UNRWA has discovered, are falling dramatically as the world turns its attention to Iraq.

The second factor is the high level of mutual aid inside extended Palestinian families. Breadwinners help poorer relatives, even when they are struggling themselves. It is almost unknown for Palestinians to be homeless or destitute. But the holes in this family-based “welfare net” are growing ever larger under the huge strain imposed by the military occupation and internal closures.

The 27 months of restricted movement have cost Palestinians $5.4 billion in national income—far more than the $728 million in damage inflicted on the territories’ infrastructure by the army’s invasions. Morad Odwan, 42, a former laborer who has been unemployed since the first Intifada, has a wife, seven children and an elderly mother to support. They live together in a bare two-room house, the main room of which has only a sofa, plastic chairs and table.

Odwan’s 70-year-old mother, Ahmini, lies on a mattress by the front door of the main room, overlooking the street. A diabetic, she has not moved from the mattress for the four years since a diseased leg was amputated. She needs regular supplies of Insulin.

Before the Intifada Odwan could rely on the assistance of far less-stretched aid agencies and on the support of his brother and neighbors. Now this support network is collapsing. Odwan receives UNRWA supplies only once every six months and his brother has been struggling to help since his own wife fell ill with cancer. Neighbors are similarly strapped. One, Nizar Zamari, a businessman who owns five shops in the town, including an insurance firm and furniture shop, buys Morad food but says he is no longer the rich man he was. “I cannot succeed in business when everyone else in the town is penniless,” he said. “Eighty percent of the people are like Morad and cannot afford my goods but I still have to pay rent on the shops. Next week I will have to sell my car.”

Israel building apartheid walls all over Palestine

The villages around Azzoun are in equally bad shape. Izzbi Tabib, home to 30 families, can no longer be reached from the main road since the army blocked the entrance with earth embankments. It is a ten-minute drive from Azzoun along a deeply potholed road and dirt track.

Like many villagers in this area, the families of Izzbi Tabib have recently lost most of their farm land to the separation wall Israel is building. “The wall has not been built here yet but they are digging the route and we dare not go near the land because the contractors shoot at us,” said Moussa Tabib, the former local council leader. The loss of the land has severed the villagers from their last source of income and their subsistence crops. Now all that most have to fall back on, are UNRWA handouts. “It’s bad today, but if there’s one thing we know it’s that it’ll be worse tomorrow,” he said.

Yasser Tabib, 42, lives with his wife, ten children and his parents in a small three bedroom house under threat of demolition by the army, like most other homes in the village. He once made a living carrying goods on his donkey and cart, until ill health forced him to give up work a few years ago. Among his children is nine-year-old, Areen, paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair, who needs special medical attention and schooling that is not available, even though the village is in Area C and so the inhabitants are fully Israel’s responsibility.

Any money Yasser Tabib has goes on food for his children and medicine for Areen. He was not in Azzoun for the handouts this week. He took food three months ago and must wait another three months—if UNRWA still has food—to receive again.

So what does this economic and social destruction, and the resulting physical and mental damage being inflicted on a generation of Palestinian children, achieve for Israel? Not security, according to Aryeh Arnon, a professor of economics at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheva. He recently told the daily Ha’aretz newspaper: “This is an economic war. Israel is using an economic lever on the civilian Palestinian population” to force Palestinian civilians to put pressure on armed groups to end the struggle or to hand them in.

While doubtless true, this underestimates the extent of Israeli measures strangling the Palestinian economy. There appear to be two further goals. First, the army’s hope is that Palestinian resistance—more popular than is acknowledged in both Western and Palestinian media—can be worn down through collective punishment. Given this logic, Israel assumes a tired and malnourished population forced to concentrate on seeking out the barest of livings will not have the energy or will to oppose either the military occupation or the continuing growth of the settlements.

And second, the policy is part of a related program by Israel—which includes the separation wall, house demolitions, the theft of the olive harvest and army violence—to slowly force Palestinians to seek protection and support in ever larger concentrations, and ultimately in the eight biggest cities themselves. If the plan works, the displaced Palestinian population will have surrendered its national birthright to the settlers and Israel.

Al-Ahram Weekly, (Issue No. 630), March 20-26, 2003





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