Gaza families down to a meal a day

GAZA CITY, occupied Gaza Strip (IPS) - Umm Abdullah cannot remember the last time she was able to feed meat to her eight children. She does know that for the past week the single meal she cooked for them each day consisted only of lentils. And that on one day, she had received aid coupons from the United Nations, which she subsequently sold to buy tomatoes and eggplant at the local market.

Umm Abdullah is a 42-year-old dressmaker and hails from Jabaliya, a cramped refugee camp on the outskirts of Gaza City. Stories like hers are commonplace across the Gaza Strip, where years of sanctions, siege and now war have battered the territory’s economy and put many essentials out of reach for the majority of the population.

“We live day to day, nothing more,” says Umm Abdullah, who made less than three dollars in profit over the last three days. “If we can eat once a day, that is good enough for us.”

While the prices of food and other goods have cooled off from the record highs they hit during Israel’s three-week assault, the World Food Program (WFP) reports that a number of items, many of them basic, remain more expensive for Gaza’s residents than they were before the attacks.

Sugar, rice, onion, cucumber, tomato, lemon, pepper, chicken, meat, fish and garlic were all more expensive for Gaza’s residents in March 2009 than they were in December 2008, the WFP says.

The price of pepper per kilogram doubled, while the cost of onions jumped 33 percent. Fresh chicken is now 43 percent more expensive than before the attacks, a result of the destruction of a number of poultry farms across Gaza throughout the assault.

The decimation of wide swathes of agricultural land, as well as cattle and sheep farms, has added to Gaza’s growing food insecurity.

But the war only intensified an already dire humanitarian situation, economists say, which has its roots in Israel’s economic siege that hermetically sealed Gaza’s borders in June 2007.

The shortage of all but “essential” goods and a flow of only a trickle of fuel have sent prices of food and other products skyrocketing over the past two years, making them unaffordable to many households in the Gaza Strip.

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the food portion of Gaza’s consumer price index (CPI) — an economic indicator used to measure the average price of goods and services purchased by households — rose 28 percent in 2008.

In Israel, by comparison, the CPI’s food segment increased by less than five percent from March 2008 to March 2009, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics reports.

“A negative economic growth rate coupled with an extreme shortage of goods is causing what we call stagflation in Gaza and that is what is behind the high prices,” says Dr. Ibrahim Hantash of the Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute.

“The rampant smuggling also sends prices of basic goods through the roof, because there is no control. It’s all black market.”

After the war, the majority of Gazans are now living below the income poverty line, says the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). It defines the line as a family of six subsisting on 500 dollars per month.

More than half of those families living below the poverty are living in extreme hardship, on less than 250 dollars each month, or approximately 1.35 dollars per person per day.

And because Gaza’s households spend most of their dwindling monthly income on food, the IMF says, 75 percent of the population has been forced to reduce the quantity of food they buy, while 89 percent reduced the quality.

This has meant many households, like Umm Abdullah’s, have had to forego certain sources of protein, including meat and eggs.

“Gazans face an acute shortage of nutritious, locally-produced and affordable food,” says a report released by the WFP and the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) in March.

Gazans have consequently reduced their daily calorie intake, mainly by no longer eating items like red meat, rice, oils and fats, and fruits and dairy products — leading to nutritional deficiencies like anaemia, the report says.

Jalal Ataf al-Masari has been running a fruit stand at the heart of the crowded Beach refugee camp in Gaza City for 10 years, and he says he has never seen prices so high and business so low.

“At the beginning of the siege, it was only the poor that stopped buying fruit,” al-Masari says. “Now, nobody buys fruit. Life has become increasingly worse.”

One kilo of bananas at al-Masari’s shop is six shekels, or 1.45 dollars. Apples, imported from Israel, are five shekels, or 1.20 dollars per kilo. Before the siege, al-Masari says, you could buy three kilos of apples for 10 shekels, or 2.42 dollars.

Now, not even pears, peaches or kiwis are available in the market. Many of Gaza’s “supermarkets” contain sparsely stocked shelves of UN-distributed rice, EU-donated cooking oil, some canned goods and plastic bags of flour, salt and lentils.

“I have been dealing with this siege for two years and I still can’t believe how expensive everything is,” al-Masari says. “It’s more expensive than America.”

The WFP says Gaza’s residents are resorting to certain “coping mechanisms” to keep their families afloat, including selling jewelry or property, buying food on credit, and borrowing from friends and family.

Soha Kaloub, mother of eight and wife of a civil policeman whose salary has been cut off by the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, says from her bare home in the Beach refugee camp that they were forced to sell off all their furniture in order to buy food.

Kaloub cannot afford to fill her six-kilogram canister of cooking gas, which would cost her about six dollars, so she uses a small kerosene cooker left over from the era of the Ottoman rule in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

She uses it to cook beans or lentils, sometimes vegetables, for her children. “For nine months, we haven’t had meat or chicken. My refrigerator is empty, our lives our empty,” Kaloub says. “It wasn’t paradise before the siege, but it was better. At least we had something.”

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