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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