Despair, poverty rise in Palestinian area
MEL FRYKBERGPublished: January 04, 2008
"The situation on the ground has deteriorated in recent months. From my offices in Gaza City I have witnessed first hand the pace and the extent of this decline," said Karen Koning AbuZayd, commissioner-general of UNWRA, which looks after Palestinian Refugees. "In Gaza, the entire population -- 1.5 million persons, including 1 million refugees -- are living under conditions of feudal siege,"
she added, "with borders closed to all but humanitarian goods and major reductions in the flow of electricity and fuel."
The primary cause for the deteriorating situation is a crippling international embargo, compounded by an Israeli siege on the Gaza strip. The embargo followed the victory of Hamas in democratic legislative elections that were supervised by international observers and monitors including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, in January 2006.
Following the elections Israel withheld PA customs and VAT revenues, which are major sources of Palestinian public revenue. The situation was compounded by the withdrawal of international aid and resulted in an acute fiscal crisis characterized by the non-payment of public sector wages and the weakening of government.
Prior to 2006 there had been three years of steady growth. But in that year Palestinian GDP fell by between 7 and 10 percent. This compared to a decline of around 4 percent in Lebanon at the same time, when large parts of the country were devastated by the 2006 Israeli-Lebanon war.
Following a Hamas takeover of the Gaza strip last June, Israel tightened its sanctions in a bid to pressure and isolate the Hamas leadership further. This included limiting the amount of food, medical supplies, construction materials, chemicals, machinery parts, and fuel that entered the strip, thereby causing immense suffering to the civilian population.
Israeli Defense Forces spokesman Col. Nir Press, however, told the Middle East Times, that the closure of several Gaza crossing points and restrictions on imports were due to continual Qassem rocket attacks, but that Israel continued to allow humanitarian aid in.
Although the boycott on the West Bank was lifted simultaneously in June, following the establishment of an emergency government by Hamas' political rival Mahmoud Abbas there, the territory is still trying to overcome the devastating economic effects of the embargo.
In the West Bank, unemployment rates at around 25 percent remain much higher than regional averages. Gaza's unemployment rate stands at nearly 40 percent according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. This in a territory where rates were already among the highest in the world.
Furthermore, according to a November report from the Palestinian Federation of Industries 95 percent of factories in Gaza have closed, leading to over 32,000 job losses.
The PCBS also reports that Gaza's construction sector has been severely weakened due to restrictions on imports of raw materials. This has negatively impacted UNRWA infrastructure projects valued at $93 million, which have been halted by a lack of supplies.
Additionally, restricted access to international markets has weakened business, while unemployment has risen partly due to increased restrictions – on the grounds of security -- on Palestinian laborers going to work in Israel.
And hunger is an ongoing issue. Food security for Gaza's 1.5 million people has also been steadily deteriorating.
(Food insecurity, according to the United Nations, describes the circumstance in which people cannot be sure of getting access to adequate supplies of nutritious and safe food.)
A U.N. World Food Program initiative called Emergency Food Needs Assessment showed that 51 percent of Palestinians are food insecure in the occupied territory as a whole, with 70 percent food insecure in Gaza.
The main factors affecting Palestinians' access to food, exacerbated by the second intifada, are Israeli imposed restrictions on their internal and external movement. Limited Palestinian control over their natural resources -- in particular water and agricultural land -- is another major factor.
Furthermore, chronic malnutrition and dietary-related diseases are slowly increasing
, WHO has reported.
Anemia amongst children age nine to 12 months stands at 69 percent in Gaza and 47 percent in the West Bank, with 33 percent of women of childbearing age affected. The number of cases of stunting, low birth weights and premature deaths is also increasing.
Some 70 percent of Palestinians are estimated by the United Nations Children's Fund to be living below the poverty line.
According to UNRWA and the Palestinian Ministry of Social Affairs, the number of chronic poor has risen sharply.
This group includes households without an able-bodied male who is capable of working. These households generally have a high proportion of women, children, and the elderly.
It is against this background that UNRWA launched the emergency appeal to establish emergency food assistance, employment opportunities, and cash assistance programs in a bid to alleviate the crisis.