Palestinians ill-nourished under curfew

Hopkins study finds malnutrition worsening

August 04, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAMALLAH, West Bank - A typical breakfast in Fatima Khodour's three-room apartment consists of tea and boiled tomatoes seasoned with thyme and olive oil. For the late afternoon lunch, the main and final meal of the day, the menu is the same, plus fried potatoes.

It feeds 11 people from three generations.

"I know this isn't enough," said Khodour, 39, whose family has been without a source of income for nearly two years, ever since clashes between Palestinians and Israelis cost many Palestinians their jobs. "But what can I do?"

Khodour's sisters, nieces, nephews and mother crowd in their living room, the smallest ones forced to sit on laps for lack of couches or chairs. "Kids need all different kinds of food," she said. "But everything that they want or need doesn't exist in their lives, or ours. We simply cannot provide it because of the harsh situation. We have no money."

Her family is not starving. But it is trapped by Israeli curfews and roadblocks that have brought poverty and now the threat of malnutrition, a problem affecting a growing number of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, according to a study conducted by the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions for the United States Agency for International Development.

The study's findings, researchers from Hopkins and Al-Quds University said last week in interviews, show that restrictions imposed on Palestinians by Israel are affecting individuals' health.

For the past seven weeks, Israeli soldiers have occupied the major Palestinian cities and restricted their 700,000 residents to their homes. In Ramallah, the army curfew has been lifted for about eight hours every few days; residents of Nablus have been allowed outside for only five days since the end of June.

USAID officials are scheduled to release the formal findings of the nutritional study tomorrow, a report prepared as part of a larger two-year study of ways to improve Palestinian health care and emergency services.

Researchers have found troubling ironies. Though many households are suffering from malnutrition, fruit and vegetable markets overflow with food whenever Israeli soldiers lift their curfews. And food prices have plummeted.

Two pounds of tomatoes cost about 20 cents, compared with a dollar in Jerusalem. But many Palestinians cannot afford to buy more than the barest necessities, even at those lower prices.

As a result, produce piles up at markets in city centers, unsold or unable to reach rural areas because of curfews and army checkpoints. Farmers see their fruit and vegetables going to waste; for lack of buyers, farmers are also slaughtering their flocks of chickens, the most readily available protein source. Even vendors who find customers aren't able to break even.

"Food is available," said Dr. P. Gregg Greenough, a field researcher at Hopkins' Center for International Emergency, Disaster and Relief Studies, who oversaw the study from Jerusalem. "It's just that people can't afford it."

Established in 2000, the center has also worked with the new government of Afghanistan to create an ambulance service.

Though the formal findings have not been released, the study has already prompted officials from the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations to urge Israel to ease its restrictions on Palestinians.

U.S. Ambassador Daniel C. Kurtzer told a meeting of officials promoting reform of the Palestinian Authority that immediate steps were needed to "avert a humanitarian disaster."

Greenough hired students from Al-Quds University, who interviewed people in 1,000 households in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.

Researchers with medical backgrounds recorded families' eating habits, documented the contents of their refrigerators, tested their water and drew blood. Greenough said field workers were sometimes delayed at checkpoints or turned away. He often had to drive to checkpoints to retrieve data from workers who were not allowed to return to Jerusalem or pass from one Palestinian village to another.

The doctors were alarmed by what they discovered.

Preliminary findings, based on one-third of the total sample, show that 30 percent of the children surveyed suffer from chronic malnutrition, a condition that did not pose an immediate health threat. About 20 percent suffered from acute malnutrition, justifying prompt medical attention. Two years ago, a similar study found a chronic malnutrition rate of 7 percent, and an acute malnutrition rate of 2.5 percent.

"An alarming number of people are borrowing money to buy food," Greenough said. "And they tell us they are buying less food than they used to."

USAID declined to release complete findings before a news conference scheduled for tomorrow, but a Palestinian group posted preliminary numbers on its Web site:

Half of the people living in 320 households surveyed reported borrowing money to buy food, and 16 percent said they had to sell furniture, jewelry and other assets.

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