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Are Palestinians Going Hungry? It Depends Who You Ask, and How

August 13, 2002
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“We will never go hungry,” Ahmad Zughayer boasted as a truck from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency unloaded sacks of flour, sugar, oil, rice and milk powder in the Balata refugee camp near Nablus.

“We will never go hungry, but not for the reason you think,” he added. “We simply stick together. Whenever anyone misses anything, someone will help out, be it family or neighbors.”

As a U.S.-funded survey reports growing levels of malnutrition among the Palestinian population, Israelis and Palestinians have differed over just how severe the socioeconomic crisis is in the Palestinian areas, and who bears the blame.

Palestinians say Israeli security closures are intended to strangle the Palestinian economy and impose collective punishment. Israel says many innocent Palestinians are paying the price of their compatriots’ belligerence and the Palestinian Authority’s ineptitude and corruption.

Before the intifada, tens of thousands of Palestinians worked in Israel and maintained a decent standard of living.

For 20 years, Iyyad Maher, 45, also from the Balata camp, worked as a truck driver distributing dairy products in Israel. Since the intifada began in September 2000, he has been sitting at home, unemployed.

According to the World Bank, 35 percent of the Palestinian labor force is unemployed, but the situation in the refugee camps is worse, with unemployment figures at 50 percent or higher.

The obvious result is that family income has fallen sharply, and there is less money to buy basic commodities.

In the past month, Israel has imposed a curfew in the West Bank and a closure that prohibits movement between Palestinian cities and towns.

Israel says it would like to ease the predicament of the general Palestinian population, while trying to maintain its own security. When Israel does relax its closures, Palestinian groups often exploit the freedom to send terrorists to attack Israel.

Israel and the Palestinians held high-level talks last week to discuss security cooperation and ways to ease Palestinian hardships. So far, no dramatic improvement has been felt.

Zughayer, however, sounded confident.

“Don’t worry about us,” he said. “We can always settle for bread and olive oil.”

His comments conflicted with a recent survey conducted by Care International, which was designed by Johns Hopkins University’s School of Public Health and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The preliminary results of the study, carried out among 1,000 Palestinian households, showed that 9.3 percent of Palestinian children up to 5 years of age suffer from acute malnutrition, meaning they weigh less than they should for their age or height. The study surveyed nutrition levels, availability of food and household consumption.

The result was an accusing finger pointed at Israel, as the study’s authors sought to tie the rise in malnutrition to Israeli-imposed restrictions on movement and the dismal economic situation in Palestinian areas, rather than to Palestinian violence or Palestinian Authority mismanagement.

Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, Israel’s coordinator of government affairs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, denied the accusations.

He admitted that the standard of living in the territories has dropped considerably, but denied categorically that the population was suffering from hunger.

The truth may be somewhere in the middle. There is no hunger because of a high level of mutual aid among the Palestinian population and the continued supply of food rations by UNRWA, and also because the Israeli army — despite closures and curfews — allows for the regular supply of food to the Palestinian territories.

On the main street of the Balata camp, in fact, fresh fruit and vegetables were piling up on the produce stands. Lumps of meat were hanging in the butcher shop, and the falafel stands were as busy as ever.

To all appearances, the population here is not suffering from hunger.

Still, they could be suffering from malnutrition. With unemployment in the territories at an all-time high, few families can afford to buy a pound of grapes for 35 cents, not to speak of meat and dairy products.

Indeed, the USAID study found that 36 percent of Palestinian families in the West Bank and Gaza Strip do not have enough money to feed their families consistently.

The figures put the Gaza Strip on par with the poverty-stricken African countries of Nigeria and Chad for acute malnutrition.

But Gilad told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee last week that the issue of hunger is partly a matter of definitions.

“Hunger is when there is a lack of basic commodities. Hunger is when people have swollen bellies and fall over dead,” Gilad said. “There is no hunger now.”

If foreign humanitarian aid to the Palestinians declines, the Israeli army is preparing for the contingency that it will have to establish a military government and resurrect the civil administration that governed Palestinians from the 1967 Six-Day War until the formation of the Palestinian Authority under the Oslo accords, Gilad told the committee.

Jacob Adler, a medical adviser to the Israeli military authorities in the West Bank and Gaza, admitted that “there is a certain problem of availability of food,” but argued that malnutrition already had increased in the mid-1990’s under Palestinian Authority management.

Not all Palestinians blame only Israel for the crisis.

A few weeks ago, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in Gaza demanding that the Palestinian Authority supply “bread and work.”

Even inside the Balata camp, residents openly blame the Palestinian Authority.

“Don’t tell me that the P.A. has no money,” said Maher, who used to earn more than $1,000 a month from his dairy delivery job in Israel. “I remember the days when the Israeli military governor came to his office with a beat-up Sussita,” a type of Israeli car produced in the 1960s. “Our leaders all drive Mercedes.”

Gilad, too, told the Knesset committee that the Palestinian Authority under President Yasser Arafat is “extremely corrupt,” with its leadership “driving fancy cars, hiring maids from Sri Lanka and not bringing up its children to become suicide bombers.”

“Sometimes,” he added, “I think we care about the Palestinians more than Yasser Arafat and his gang.”

Maher would not elaborate how, after two years unemployed, he still managed to make ends meet.

“I have burned out all our savings,” he said. “Now I’m considering selling the refrigerator.”

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