International aid agency: 80 percent of Gazans now rely on food aid

By Avi Issacharoff

Haaretz

Adar 14, 5767

Eighty percent of Gazans receive food aid from the World Food Program or from UNRWA, WFP spokesperson Kirstie Campbell says, "and without it they are liable to starve."

The dozens of laborers who used to cross into Israel every day to work also found themselves unemployed as a result of laws prohibiting them from working and the construction of the separation barrier.

WFP officials refer to the people affected by these developments "the new poor," former members of the middle class who lost their source of income. Some were able to find other jobs, but the case of the Hassein family is particularly complex.

The father, Yusuf, suffered a mild stroke about three years ago that affects his daily functioning. There is no unemployment insurance, his extended family is unable to help out with either money or food, and the family is completely dependent on the WFP.

The Hasseins are not an exception in the territories. According to WFP figures, 34 percent of residents of the territories suffer from food insecurity, which the UN food agency defines as the inability of a household to produce and/or access at all times the minimum food needed for a healthy and active life. In the Gaza Strip, where four out of five Palestinians are below the poverty line, the figure is 54 percent.

"We are seeing more and more children who come to school without eating breakfast and without the ability to buy breakfast," Campbell says. "Many families can only give their children one meal a day. The problem is particularly severe in Gaza, but it occurs in the West Bank as well."

Campbell says that while in the past food shortages were generally limited to rural areas, it now affects urban residents, traders and people who own small workshops, among others.

"The Palestinian economy is becoming an 'island' economy," Campbell explains, "small areas where residents trade among themselves." The WFP defines food insecurity as income of less than $1.60 per person per day, since this is the minimum required to obtain a nutritionally adequate diet. In Gaza, many people eat nothing but tomatoes and bread. Their neighbors and relatives may try to help, but it is not enough.

Dana Hassein, 3, and Abdu, 6, observe their houseguests with suspicion. They are hesitant at first to answer the questions posed by workers for WFP, but Majidi, one of the WFP's field workers, manages to penetrate the children's shyness. They do not ask for food or a handout, and Abdu proudly announces that he is "the most diligent student in his class."

Hunger, however, lurks in every corner of their home. Here, on the northern edge of Bidiya, not far from Ariel, the Israeli claim that there is no hunger in the West Bank rings hollow. As they do every day, Abdu, Dana, their seven siblings, their mother Basma and their father Yusuf, eat only pita and hummus, morning, noon and night. Occasionally there is tehina instead. In the morning, each child drinks a cup of tea. Once a week they eat chicken or red meat.

Since 2004, Basma relates, she and her husband have been unable to afford even the most basic staples, and the children's daily diet has become monotonous. No dairy products, no fruits or vegetables, no rice or even pasta. Occasionally Basma cooks up khubeiza or other wild greens picked in the yard, but mainly they rely on the food supplied by WFP: flour, salt, cooking oil, chickpeas and tehina.

The Hasseins' home is only a few hundred meters from Bidiya's main road, formerly the Trans-Samarian Highway. Like everyone else in the region, they remember the weekends when Israelis came to Bidiya to do their shopping, leaving sufficient cash behind to support the village and its environs. Then the second intifada broke out. The Israelis stopped coming, the highway was rebuilt about two kilometers away and thousands of families were left without livelihoods.