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Gaza running out of money for food

Special report: Israel and the Middle East

UN agencies appeal for aid to alleviate Israeli blockade

Suzanne Goldenberg in Gaza City Friday November 24, 2000 The Guardian

Half the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza - 1.5m people - could go hungry because of Israel's military and economic blockade, UN agencies are warning.

The ring of steel around Gaza and the West Bank has been tightened further this week to exclude fuel and all commodities except food and medicines.

The UN's Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) and the World Food Programme have issued urgent appeals for help.

"My impression is that donors are not responding," said an official of one international agency. "In the past, they linked assistance to the peace process. Now there is no peace process, so they tend not to respond."

During the last eight weeks of bloody confrontation, Israel's blockade on the West Bank and Gaza has been the unseen second front of a conflict which has claimed about 250 lives, pummelled the Palestinian economy and brought 3m people - the overall population of the two territories - to the point of ruin.

In Gaza, where hundreds of thousands of refugees are penned into miserable concrete warrens, the population is especially vulnerable. A third of the labour force has been turned out of jobs in Israel, and tens of thousands of others have lostlocal work in the building industry because of a blockade on concrete.

By next month about 892,000 people in Gaza, including 635,000 refugees, will have exhausted their savings and will need food aid, UNRWA and the WFP predict. Some 554,000 of their Palestinian cousins in the West Bank, who include some 450,000 refugees, are in simi lar trouble. By conservative estimates, that means 1.45m of the 3m people in Gaza and the West Bank will need food aid.

To feed them, and to rebuild homes and infrastructure, UNRWA is asking donors for $39m (27.5m) for the next three months. The WFP wants $4m (2.8m) to cover next month's food aid.

"They do not have any stocks. It is really hand to mouth, and every day finds the situation more tense in the camps," said Karen Koning AbuZayd, the deputy commissioner for UNRWA in Gaza.

Outside the blue gates of the UNWRA field office in Jabaliya refugee camp, desperate women queue from early morning. The officials inside have exhausted their quotas, and have nothing to give them.

"People cannot pay for electricity, water, tuition for their children, school supplies. Some cannot buy meat," said one field officer.

Until Israel closed the borders, sealing Gaza behind an electrified fence, members of the el-Eilah family could count themselves among the more prosperous of Jabaliya's inhabitants. Rajab Mohammed Eilah would rise with his two sons every morning at 4am, wait for hours at the Erez crossing for soldiers to check his coveted pink permit to enter Israel, and then go to work as a painter just up the coast in Ashqelon. On a good day, he could count on earning 150 shekels (about 26).

Now he is owed a fortnight's wages by his Israeli boss, and is asking round local shops for credit. "I went to five grocers and asked for credit. I just hope that when the closure ends I can go to work and repay them," he said. "But God only knows."

His debts for the last month add up to nearly 440.

A few blocks away, Latifa Abdullah Muqayied's home is bare, except for a photo of her son, Lou'ai, 20, which hangs above a rough sketch of Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosque. His head was blown off by machine-gun fire from an Israeli helicopter on October 6, robbing the 10-strong family of its one potential bread-winner.

Mrs Muqayied has firewood stacked on her asbestos roof for when her cooking gas runs out. In the last few days, gas has disappeared from the shops as the blockade bites. Mrs Muqayied says shops have run out of basics such as sugar, oil and flour.

Israel's prime minister, Ehud Barak, says these shortages are deliberate: economic leverage, together with the army's firepower, is meant to punish the Palestinians for firing on troops and Jewish settlements in Gaza and the West Bank.

Israeli forces have also destroyed at least 625 acres of palm, olive and citrus groves in Gaza, according to Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights.

The destruction - "shaving" in Israeli military parlance - is meant to clear covering foliage so that Palestinian gunmen cannot ambush army and settler convoys.

But the Israeli tractors often tear up fields far from the road. On Monday this week, hours after a mortar bomb ripped through a settler school bus, killing two teachers and maiming several children, three caterpillar tractors razed palm trees as far as 500 metres back from the site of the attack. Within 20 minutes, seven date palms, said by locals to be more than 100 years old, crashed to the ground.

In a nearby field, a cluster of local farmers gasped with every toppling tree. "They are focusing on palm trees and olives because they want to punish the people. They just want to destroy our economy," said Khalid Shaheen.

Earlier this month, Israeli army tractors ripped out 150 palms and 100 olive trees. Troops also sealed off the only road through Gaza, slicing the territory in half, and blocking people living in the south of the strip from travelling to their main city.

For Israel, all these measures are collective punishment for Palestinian protests, and the militias that have been bombing and shooting at the 6,500 Jewish settlers of Gaza when they venture out of their fortress outposts.

"We have no intention of strangling [the Palestinians]," said Nahman Shai, an Israeli government spokesman. "Just creating pressure in a careful and delicate dosage."

For the Palestinians, the approach is sheer folly. In Gaza it is practically impossible to find anyone who will openly say the time has come to resume peace talks with Israel.

"This is the harvest of the peace process - de facto apartheid and social and economic suffocation of our people," Mr Sourani said. "People have no faith in the process. They do not believe in the so-called peace, and they feel they have nothing to lose. This is the fuel.",3858,4095704,00.html

-- Martin Thompson (, November 24, 2000

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