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October 2002 • Vol 2, No. 9 •

Ethnic Cleansing by Starvation

By Rania Awwad

A U.S.-financed assessment of the overall malnutrition level among Palestinian children, released this month by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), found that one in five Palestinian children under the age of five now suffers from chronic or acute malnutrition. This astonishing statistic is on par with impoverished nations such as Chad and Nigeria, and actually surpasses rates of child malnutrition in Somalia and Bangladesh. Such figures, the report noted, are “considered an emergency by most humanitarians and public health officials.” The report points to Israeli-imposed closures and sieges of major civilian centers as the direct and primary cause.

We typically think of famines as being caused by natural disasters (droughts, overgrazing) or by crises that result in the displacement of large populations from their lands (wars, ethnic strife). The situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, however, is a startling aberration since it is clearly a man-made disaster intended to specifically target whole civilian populations. Most importantly, it can be easily and immediately reversed.

Today, Israeli military sieges are literally imprisoning families within their homes for days at a time. People cannot leave their homes to work, buy food, go to the doctor, or send their children to school. Military checkpoints and roadblocks are restricting commerce and the transport of food supplies. Workers cannot travel between Palestinian towns, and farmers and manufacturers are unable to deliver their goods to shops and markets. People have exhausted the money they can draw on from relatives and connections on the outside.

The USAID report also revealed that about one quarter of West Bank Palestinians have had to sell personal possessions to put food on the table. The World Bank recently determined that as many as 62 percent of Palestinian families are now living on less than two dollars a day. As a result of these obstacles, increasing numbers of families are skipping meals or reducing their food intake because eventually they run out of money and assets to sell.

Even before the current Israeli re-occupation that began on June 20, many Palestinians relied on aid from the Palestinian Authority and the UN World Food Program (UNWFP). With its ministries and institutions flattened, the PA can no longer serve in this role, and the UNWFP has recently announced an emergency operation to cope with what they call “dramatically deteriorating living conditions in the Palestinian Territories.”

But how can the slow starvation of a whole population be stopped when that very starvation is being altogether denied by the Israeli government and ignored by the U.S. Administration? Major General Amos Gilad, Israel’s coordinator of government affairs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, was hardly ruffled by the USAID findings. In fact, he asserted that “hunger is when people have swollen bellies and fall over dead. There is no hunger yet.”

Discovering that dismissive denial of facts is not working, the Israeli authorities are now moving to soften criticism with much-hyped symbolic gestures. Israel recently announced its intention to release about seven percent of the 600 million dollars in Palestinian tax revenue it has seized since the start of the Intifada, as well as its intention to reissue work permits for Palestinians to cross from the West Bank and Gaza to their jobs inside Israel.

These measures, however, are hardly sufficient. Much more needs to be done. It is important to understand that the collective punishment policies pursued by Ariel Sharon’s government against the Palestinians are not reactive but deliberate, and are intended to serve a specific and well-defined political purpose. Sharon is the head of the Likud Party, which to this day vows never to permit the establishment of a Palestinian state west of the Jordan River.

Sharon’s solution is to depopulate as much as possible the Occupied Palestinian Territories by making life for its citizens unbearable. And what could be more unbearable than watching your children cry themselves to sleep from hunger, night after night? What is most alarming is that Sharon may very well be having his way. As recently reported in the Jerusalem Post (an English-language Israeli daily), 80,000 Palestinians have allegedly left the Occupied Palestinian Territories for Jordan and other nations to seek economic relief for their families.

In parallel, private Israeli efforts have been pursuing their missions of “helping” any Palestinian who wishes to leave the West Bank or Gaza. As the president of one organization which seeks to assist Palestinians to “permanently emigrate” put it: “Our aim is to empty the state of Arabs.”

Another group, Gamla, founded by former Israeli military officers and colonists, has published similar recommendations on its website in a nine-thousand-word manifesto titled “The Logistics of Transfer.” It argues that the mass expulsion of every Palestinian is “the only possible solution” to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and further makes the claim that this is “substantiated by the Torah.”

The starvation of captive Palestinians is nothing less than the muffled ethnic cleansing of a whole people. As always, these matters should be of serious concern to U.S. citizens given that our diplomatic, military, and financial support have long allowed Israel to pursue with impunity such policies which contradict our own cherished political values and commitment to human rights. It is time for us to speak up. We must not be complicit in the decimation of a whole people.

—CounterPunch, September 9, 2002





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