by Chris McNeel | The Guardian | February 11, 2003
UN warns that warehouses feeding a million Palestinians will be bare in weeks because donations have dried up
More than a million Palestinians, already suffering economic collapse, growing unemployment and malnutrition levels comparable to those in Congo, are threatened with food shortages because western governments have turned their backs on a UN appeal for funds.
The UN Palestinian refugee agency Unrwa says its plea for about £60m to feed 1.1m people in the occupied territories has fallen flat, even though the intifada and Israeli retaliation have driven Palestinians to new depths of poverty.
The people of Gaza, trapped behind barbed wire backed by Israeli guns, are the worst off. Unrwa says the warehouses will be empty within weeks.
Its commissioner general, Peter Hansen, said: "If we don't get money coming in soon we will have a rupture in the food distribution which will be very serious, as we already have malnutrition levels of 22% among children, and that is bound to rise if food aid stops."
Two years ago Unrwa fed about 11,000 people in the Gaza Strip, mostly widows and those with no means of support. Today it feeds 715,000: more than half the population.
Even so nearly one in four are malnourished, it says. The children's agency, Unicef, says child malnutrition is comparable to Congo and Zimbabwe.
Unrwa says it needs $94m immediately for food but has had only one promise, $1.5m from Switzerland, and not a penny in hard cash.
Mr Hansen said: "It's going to increase tension, and be very difficult to keep things under whatever control there is at the moment.
"It's going to be politically very destabilising."
The people who live there call Gaza a prison camp. The UN says it is the most crowded place on earth, and rapidly becoming one of the poorest.
"These past two years are the worst for Gaza since the occupation began in 1967," Abdalhadi Abu Khousa, head of the Gaza section of the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees, said. More than 30% of the children are suffering from anaemia, the direct result of a lack of nutrition, which in turn springs directly from the lack of employment, Mr Hansen said.
"But it's not just unemployment and disease. There's no hope. No hope for the peace process. No hope for the future. No hope the Israelis will accept us as human beings. These are the worst times Gaza has seen."
The decline has been rapid. For years agricultural exports and jobs in Israel made the economy boom.
When the intifada began two years ago about 70,000 Gazans went to work in Israel, many as building labourers or in Jewish settlements. Now only 15,000 day permits to enter Israel are issued.
Aqil Abu Shammala, the refugee who heads the UN's social services programme in Gaza, says the result is a rapid decline into poverty.
"We had very many things: cars, furniture, travel. We had five or six years that were very good," he said. "From the beginning of the intifada, step by step, labourers working in Israel were dismissed. People were forced to spend their savings. Month after month their savings were whittled away.
"Many sold their furniture and now they have nothing left to sell: 90% of labourers lost their jobs.
"A teacher told me that previously if you asked the children in class who needed aid for the poor, they were ashamed to receive it. Now the children are keen to register their names.
"Poverty is so pervasive that it has ceased to be a stigma."
Desperation has driven men to risk their lives in search of work. Five cousins from the al-Astal family in Khan Younis refugee camp were killed trying to climb the fence to find jobs in Israel.
Among them was Muhammad al-Astal, 21. "I told him not to do it," his wife Doa said.
"But we have a little girl, she is only a year old and he said he must go and find work so he can look after her properly. He said that is a husband's duty."
The Israeli army did not try to arrest them: it blew them to bits with a tank shell.
"Everyone knows about the cousins," said Amal Masri, a social worker in Khan Younis.
"We live with so much here. The poverty, the constant noise of the tanks. You never sleep properly.
"But what happened to the al-Astal men sickened a lot of people. They weren't trying to hurt anyone, they were just trying to feed their children."
Mr Hansen is reluctant to say that funds are not forthcoming because donors are worried that a war on Iraq will cost billions of dollars in emergency aid and reconstruction costs. But others in the UN do so.
The British Department for International Development is one of the biggest donors to the Palestinians. Yesterday the secretary of state, Clare Short, said Britain had already increased its annual support to the Palestinians to £32m, and more would be forthcoming.
"This is a humanitarian crisis and help must be provided to keep people going," she said. "But this crisis will not be resolved without a political solution."
Some say that if Israel insists on occupying Palestinian territory it should take responsibility for the welfare of the residents. Mr Hansen says he has tried that avenue and failed.
"We have asked the Israelis for a great many things, but apart from a consignment of rice they have given nothing.
"Instead, they have caused very great costs by destroying several of our installations and hindering us in doing our work."
The cost of the intifada
In 2000 Unrwa fed about 11,000 people in Gaza. Now it feeds more than 700,000
In 2000 about 70,000 Palestinians worked in Israel, indirectly providing employment for about three times that number in Gaza. Israel now lets fewer than 15,000 Palestinians a day cross from Gaza to work
The average income has fallen from about £1,250 a year to about £300
Medical charities say they are treating thee times more children for malnutrition
An American survey found that 65% could no longer afford such staples as rice and potatoes in the quantities they were used to
The pass rate in school leaving exams has dropped from 71% to 38%