Never Again!

June 10, 2006

In News

by Sanjay Suri

LONDON, Jun 2 (IPS) – Children rummage through garbage cans for discarded food for their one meal during the day. Families wait to buy discount-priced vegetables left unsold in the evening. These are not locally exaggerated accounts of the situation in Palestinian areas, but an official account by the World Food Programme.

Next month the World Food Programme (WFP), a United Nations agency, will have to feed 25 percent more people — 600,000 in all — in the Palestinian territories because they have no other way of finding food. But only next month; the organisation has no money left to feed people after that.

“We’re going to have a pipeline break then,” Kirstie Campbell from the WFP told IPS by phone from Jerusalem.

“There has been a cut in funding after withdrawal of tax payments from Israel,” Campbell said. “Also, donors are not funding the Palestinian Authority.”

Palestinians are evidently paying for exercising their democratic choice and voting a Hamas government into power. And it is the poorest among them who will pay the price.

“You have three categories of people in need,” Campbell said. “You have the chronically poor, then you have people in institutions like the elderly, orphans and social rejects, and thirdly the new poor who have been affected by the present crisis.

It is the last of these categories that is far more likely to find help than the others “because programmes for them are being implemented by non-governmental organisations,” she said. Funding to the first two categories is processed through the social affairs ministry of the Palestinian government, which is not likely to get this new funding.

And other factors are making life even worse for these poorest of the poor.

“Of about 2.2 million poultry in these areas, about 400,000 have been culled because of avian influenza,” Campbell said. “And that is the cheapest source of protein.”

People in Gaza are suffering also under fishing restrictions, said the WFP reporting officer. “Fishing has been allowed only between six and 10 nautical miles into the sea,” she said. “But this is not the area where you can find the bigger fish. Boats are going out and trawling in the breeding area, and gathering a lot of small fish and waste.”

The closure of the Karni terminal on the border between Gaza and Israel has added to the hardship, limiting the availability of goods and food, though there has been some easing of restrictions this week.

Under the weight of such pressures, survival itself is beginning to crack up.

“WFP monitors have carried out a dietary diversity study among about a thousand families, and we are seeing people affected in all sorts of ways by the poverty and unemployment,” Campbell said. “Families have no money to buy food, and some are living on only bread and herbs.”

This might soon have a bearing on the health of the population. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is now beginning a study of the nutritional aspect of the food problem in the Palestinian areas, with a combined population of about 3.5 million across Gaza, Jerusalem and the West Bank (of the Jordan river).

That study is due to begin in July — when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians will be staring at prospects of no food at all.

In the face of this crisis “we are definitely seeing signs of unrest,” Campbell said. “That is clear from so many reports from the region that you see.”

Pledges and contributions fall far short of the 103 million dollars the WFP wants for a two-year period that began in September 2005. The WFP has only 29 percent of the projected need in the face of a rapidly worsening situation.

Major donors so far include the European Commission (13.9 million dollars), the United States (7.9 million), Japan (1.4 million), France (1.2 million), Norway (1.1 million) and Switzerland (1.0 million).

The annual worldwide budget of the WFP last year was about 3.1 billion dollars, and the year before, the agency reached 113 million people in 80 countries. What has been given for the Palestinian areas is a tiny fraction of the budget total, and what is being offered additionally now is selective and conditional.

According to a recent study conducted by the WFP along with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), nearly two million Palestinians, more than half the population, are unable to meet their daily food needs without assistance.

“The situation is dragging the exhausted population into deeper poverty and debt,” Arnold Vercken, WFP country director in the Palestinian territories, said in a statement. “Loss of earnings and rising unemployment coupled with increased market prices are crippling the poorest sector of society, leading to mounting despair.”

Vercken added: “In Gaza we are seeing more people, especially children, begging on the streets. We are in a race against time to reach the most vulnerable with food aid and avoid an escalation of this crisis. Urgent assistance now can really make a difference.”