Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Gaza Families Down to a Meal a Day

By Erin Cunningham
IPS News, Inter Press Service
May 13, 2009

Um 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.

Um 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 Um 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 Programme (WFP) reports that a number of items, many of them basic, remain more expensive for Gaza's residents than they were before Operation Cast Lead.

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 war, 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 5 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 Programme (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 Um 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 Organisation (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 ten 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."

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Friday, May 1, 2009

Gaza: Not nearly back to normal

Apr 30th 2009 | GAZA CITY
From The Economist print edition
Three months after Israel’s war ended, life for Gazans is still dismal

MUHAMMAD KHADER places some rugs and blankets amid the ruins of his house. Sometimes he goes there to rest when the tent he shares with his wife and six of their daughters gets too crowded. They ran away from their home earlier this year when it was hit by a missile during Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip, and fled to their only married daughter’s house in Jabaliya, a Palestinian refugee camp originally built for villagers fleeing in 1948 from what is now Israel. The daughter did not have enough blankets or mattresses for everyone but the neighbours helped out.

As soon as the Israeli troops pulled out of Gaza in mid-to-late January the Khader family went home—to find a pile of rubble. Even their chicken pen had been bulldozed. It had been their sole source of income since Mr Khader, along with thousands of other Gazan men, lost his permit to work in Israel after the second Palestinian intifada (uprising) started in 2000. Now he sits amid the debris and gazes at the green tents with Rotary International logos which an Arab charity has pitched on a muddy, desolate field on Jabaliya’s eastern edge. Before the war, olive and citrus trees grew there. “We used to work in Israel,” he says, lighting another cigarette. “We worked for them, built their houses. And now look what they’ve done to us.”

Mr Khader is one of tens of thousands of Palestinians who became homeless in the recent Gaza war. UN agencies estimate that 4,100 houses were destroyed and 15,000-plus damaged; 50,000-odd people sought refuge in UN schools during the fighting. Most went home after the truce or found other places to live. But thousands are still huddling in tents in makeshift refugee camps.

A mining bulldozer noisily clears away the ruins on the fringe of Jabaliya but there is virtually no reconstruction anywhere in Gaza. At an international donors’ conference in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in March, $4.5 billion was pledged for reconstruction. But three months after the ceasefire, repair work has yet to begin.

Israel is still enforcing the sanctions it imposed on Gaza after the Palestinian Islamist movement, Hamas, took over the strip in June 2007, violently ousting its secular rival, Fatah. The Israelis still refuse to let in most imports except food and vital medicine. They still bar building material such as concrete, steel and pipes, as well as industrial equipment. They say they fear that Hamas and other militant groups would use them to build bunkers or weapons, such as the home-made rockets they still sometimes fire at nearby Israeli towns.

Supplies for repairing the water and sewage system and the electricity networks damaged during the war are also stuck at the border terminals. A good 90% of the people suffer from power cuts; the rest have no electricity at all. While 32,000 people in a population of 1.5m have no running water, 100,000 or so get water once in every two or three days. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which looks after Palestinian refugees across the Middle East, says that the rate of infectious diseases, including diarrhoea and viral hepatitis, which result from bad water and sanitation, has risen.

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