Politics mostly responsible for Palestinian food insecurity - UN

A fisherman in Gaza City shows his frustration at the Israeli ban on fishing off Gaza, which is exacerbating the food crisis in the Gaza Strip. (Tom Spender/IRIN)

JERUSALEM (IRIN) - Lower incomes and the increasing cost of food have contributed to higher food insecurity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, without a change in the political situation the only solution remains emergency humanitarian aid, a new UN report has said.

“The main driver of Palestinian food insecurity is of a political nature,” said a joint food security survey conducted by the World Food Program (WFP), the Food and Agriculture Organization and the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA). It cited Israeli-imposed restrictions on movement, and land and water access, as well as the extension of the West Bank wall and Israeli settlements as the main causes.

Israel has said restrictions on movement and the wall are needed for security purposes and efforts are being made to make life easier for Palestinians.

Food insecurity was up four percent in 2006, affecting 38 percent of the population, though in Gaza it extended to more than half the people. Some 44 percent of UNRWA-registered refugees, the report said, were food insecure.

Drop in incomes

Despite promises of economic recovery by some political players, about a third of Palestinians overall reported a drop in income in the last year; 37 percent of Gazan breadwinners were unemployed, as were 27 percent of primary earners in the West Bank.

Without international aid mitigating the food situation, the problem would probably be worse, the agencies said in the May 2008 report entitled “Joint Rapid Food Security Survey in the occupied Palestinian territory.”

In the West Bank people spent about 56 percent of their income on food while in Gaza it was at 66 percent. The poorest were spending about 75 percent of each dollar earned just to eat.

According to the survey, the consumer price index for food rose about 15 percent in the last year, with the price of wheat flour going up about 70 percent. The prices of many locally grown goods have also skyrocketed, in part due to the closure on Gaza and the droughts and frosts in the West Bank. Both these factors have hit Palestinians. The situation has been barely, if at all, offset by farmers who previously exported their produce now selling it off cheaply on the local market, as much of this produce is items like strawberries, flowers and cherry tomatoes — of little relevance to the very poor.

The agencies expressed concern for the overall well-being of the agricultural sector, particularly in the Gaza Strip, where exporting produce is banned, as is the import of needed supplies like seeds and fertilizers. However, according to one FAO expert, agriculture projects, including ones aimed at growing a diverse range of food, are part of the solution to the looming food crisis.

Coping mechanisms depleted

After nearly eight years of intense conflict and restrictions, the Palestinians are running out of coping mechanisms, the agencies warned, saying that 59 percent were relying on credit to buy food, having already sold off their assets, though this way out was unavailable to those without steady incomes, and likely to be depleted soon.

To deal with the rising costs, besides not paying utility bills, most people were eating less — and lower quality — food, although the agencies warned that these habits would result in adverse long-term health problems. Already, expenditure on health and education were down.

About 60 percent of Palestinians in Gaza said international assistance was a secondary source of income, but the rising cost of food and overheads for aid agencies, in part caused by the rising food and fuel prices globally, meant donor aid money did not go as far as in the past.

“It is becoming extraordinarily difficult to cover the growing needs of the Palestinian people,” said Christine van Nieuwenhuyse, the WFP representative in occupied Palestinian territory.

Furthermore, the Palestinian Authority, which has only limited autonomy, would not be able to make fiscal policy changes to help the situation.

“Freedom of movement and other changes to the political and military regime are crucial because without them people will be dependent on aid forever,” said one senior aid worker.

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