Hungry in Palestine

Revolutionary Worker #1162, August 11, 2002, posted at

The children of Palestine are being starved by the Israeli occupiers.

A recent study brings new light to the devastating effects of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian lives, especially on children. The study was conducted by Johns Hopkins University for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Preliminary findings from the study appeared on a Palestinian website.

The study found that malnutrition is widespread and increasing rapidly among Palestinian children under 5 in the West Bank and Gaza. According to the study, 30% of Palestinian children--nearly one in three--suffer from chronic malnutrition and stunted growth, and 21% suffer from acute malnutrition. The current figures for malnourished children show a dramatic increase since 2000, when 7.5% of children suffered from chronic malnutrition and 2.5% from acute malnutrition. The study also said that almost half of children under 6 as well as half of women of childbearing age suffered from mild to moderate anemia caused by poor diet.

Some Palestinian researchers say that the USAID report may actually underestimate the number of malnourished children because many parents would be reluctant to tell strangers that they are not able to provide enough food for their families. An official with a Palestinian aid group commented, "I would say that the figures of malnutrition among children exceeds 50%. Just imagine yourself without income for 22 months and you have ten mouths to feed three times a day, in addition to having to pay for basic necessities such as water, electricity, rent, schooling, clothing, and medication."

Driven into Depths of Poverty

The sharp upward spike in the number of malnourished children is a direct result of Israel's brutal military clampdown against Palestinians over the past two years. The problem faced by the people in the West Bank and Gaza is not a lack of food supply. The problem is that people cannot afford to buy enough food because they have been driven deeper into depths of poverty by the cruel actions of the occupiers.

In September 2000, Israeli right-wing leader Ariel Sharon (now premier) made a deliberately provocative visit to Haram al-Sharif, a key site in the historic Palestinian capital of East Jerusalem. Sharon's action touched off widespread Palestinian protest and resistance in the streets, and the Israeli army responded by shooting down rock-throwing youth. Since then, the Israeli occupiers--backed with massive military aid from the U.S.--have been on a mission to wreck Palestinian society, carrying out tank invasions of West Bank towns, bulldozing homes and olive trees, imposing harsh curfews that prevent people from going out of their homes, bringing the Palestinian economy to a standstill.

Before September 2000, over 150,000 Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip commuted to jobs in Israel. The wages brought home by these workers made up one-fourth of the labor income of the Palestinian economy. Under the Israeli policy of "closure," most of those workers are barred from going into Israel and have lost their jobs.

The curfews imposed by the Israeli military mean that hundreds of thousands of people are basically under house arrest, sometimes for many days in a row. Curfews are lifted at irregular intervals for only a few hours at a time. This makes it impossible for people to go to their jobs or find work as day laborers. Palestinian factories have been shut down, because they can't get raw materials that have to be imported through Israel.

All this has led to a staggering poverty rate. About 60% of Palestinian families in the West Bank and almost 85% of families in the Gaza Strip are living below the poverty line. This means that more than two out of three Palestinians are trying to survive on less than $2 a day.

Omar Abahira, a Palestinian from a West Bank village near Jenin, used to earn enough from his job with an Israeli telephone company to feed his family of 10 children. That was before September 2000. Like millions of other Palestinians, life under Israeli occupation is increasingly desperate for Abahira and his family. "I've never seen such a situation in my life," Abahira says. "There's no money or work, and I have to bring bread to my 10 children."

Along with hundreds of others from the Jenin area, Abahira secretly crosses the border into Israel to work on Israeli farms--doing backbreaking labor in the fields ten hours a day, seven days a week, for low wages. These "illegal" workers--including children--risk getting arrested or beaten by Israeli security forces as they travel into Israel. Sometimes they are caught during police raids of the fields and sent back into the West Bank before they are paid for their work. But, says another worker from the Jenin area, "I have no choice. We want to live, and there is no other way to make a living."

Others in the West Bank and Gaza try to survive by selling off family possessions or borrowing money, relying on handouts from aid groups for daily meals, tightening their belts in whatever ways they can.

The ability of the Israeli occupiers to shut down the Palestinian economy points to domination of Palestine by Israel's imperialist-backed settler-colonial state. The U.S. government has claimed that it supports greater autonomy and even eventual independence for the Palestinian people--but the reality has been increasing relations of dependency on Israel. Using its overwhelming military strength, Israel has divided up the Palestinian areas in the West Bank and Gaza into small, unconnected islands that are divided by Israeli settlements, "security roads," and military zones. This situation of tight control allows the Israeli occupiers to quickly clamp down on the Palestinian areas--in effect putting millions of people under huge prison lockdowns.

"A Slow Genocide"

In addition to increasing hunger, children and others in the West Bank and Gaza Strip face other deadly health dangers under Israeli occupation. According to MERIP (Middle East Research and Information Project), "Birzeit University's Institute for Community and Public Health has warned of increases in preventable disease, like hepatitis B, because vaccinations cannot be carried out on schedule. The Palestinian Authority's Ministry of Health normally carries out vaccinations for hepatitis B at birth. Today many mothers cannot reach the Ministry's hospitals due to the curew and closures, and there has been a 40 percent increase in births at home, where there is no access to the vaccine... In some areas, such as Askar refugee camp near Nablus, vaccines have spoiled because electricity powering cold storage facilities has been cut off for long periods."

A recent study in the West Bank town of Nablus found that none of 300 households surveyed had access to safe drinking water. Curfews have caused buildups of trash. Such unsanitary conditions have led to a marked increase in diarrhea. The USAID study found that almost one third of households that were surveyed had one family member who suffered from diarrhea recently. And there are fears of even more serious contagious diseases like cholera.

On July 22, an Israeli Air Force F-16--made in the U.S.--dropped a one-ton laser-guided bomb in the middle of the densely populated Gaza City, killing 16 people, ten of them children. The youngest, 2-month- old Dina Mattar, is one of more than 260 children killed in Israeli shootings and bombings since September 2000.

These are cold-blooded murders by heartless oppressors. And the Israeli occupiers are threatening the lives of hundreds of thousands of kids and other Palestinians through their siege of the West Bank and Gaza. A Palestinian aid official said of the curfews imposed by the Israeli military: "It is like incarcerating people for days and weeks without food. This is what the curfew looks like. It is a form of slow genocide."

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