Living on $2 a day

August 05, 2002

THERE WAS A TIME when a guest in a Palestinian home could count on a lunch of grilled lamb or roasted chicken, rice and vegetables and a stack of fresh-baked pita bread with which to scoop up every morsel. The tables of Palestinians are no longer bountiful.

And those most in need - the children - are showing the effects of the dearth, according to a study of 1,000 households commissioned by the U.S. Agency for International Development released today.

Preliminary data found that as many as 30 percent of children under the age of 5 in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were chronically malnourished, compared with about 7.5 percent in 1999-2000. Acute malnutrition was found in 20 percent of children, up from 2.5 percent. The increases are directly related to Israeli military closures, the army's reoccupation of Palestinian cities and 24-hour curfews, researchers found.

The survey by researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Al Quds University in Jerusalem confirms what aid workers have suspected, Palestinian health officers expected and Israeli officials recently acknowledged: the degradation of Palestinian life during 22 months of renewed violence and conflict in Israel and the territories.

The violence and clashes have disrupted life as Palestinians once knew it. Military closures prevent Palestinians from their work and deliveries of food from the markets. Curfews keep people from getting to the shops. And when shipments of produce, meat, flour and milk do reach the cities and villages, Palestinians don't have the money to buy groceries necessary for a balanced diet for their families. That's even though many merchants are selling food at cut-rate prices. Food may cost less, but Palestinian families are eating less of it.

As the Bush administration has sought reform of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's corrupt regime, it also has leaned on Israel to ease the economic burdens of Palestinians. Conditions are such that about 70 percent of Palestinians are living on $2 a day, according to a World Bank survey.

Israel rightly has recognized that it bears some responsibility for the economic plight of Palestinian families. In July, it asked the United Nations to help forge a worldwide humanitarian aid plan for Palestinians. And just last week, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres briefed the White House on his government's efforts to return Palestinians to work in Israel despite fears of terrorist attacks: It will reissue 7,000 to 20,000 work permits, open industrial parks on the border and ease restrictions on Gaza fishermen.

The Israeli government must not waste any time in implementing relief measures. And the Bush administration should hold Israel to its pledge. It is in Israel's interest to improve the welfare of Palestinian families: If growers are watching crops rot in fields, if farmers are killing off livestock to eat, if parents can't properly feed their children, who can say how they will respond?

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