Palestinians await lifting of U.S.-Israeli siege

Despite last week’s flurry of diplomatic activity around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including visits to the region by Ban Ki-moon, the UN’s new secretary general, and by Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s secretary of state, the Palestinian people have seen virtually no improvements on the ground.

Hopes that the recent formation of a Palestinian national unity government, made up of representatives from both Hamas and Fatah, would end the U.S.-backed Israeli siege of the Occupied Territories have so far remained unfulfilled.

Palestinians continue to face an acute humanitarian crisis and mounting internal stress, especially in the Gaza Strip.

About 34 percent of Palestinians can no longer afford a balanced meal, according to a report last week by the UN’s World Food Program (WFP) and Food and Agriculture Organization. The problem is most severe in Gaza, where 51 percent of the population suffers from “food insecurity.”

“The poorest families are now living a meager existence totally reliant on assistance, with no electricity or heating, and eating food prepared from water from bad sources,” said Arnold Vercken, the WFP director in the territories, in a statement quoted by IRIN, a UN-related news agency.

The report says Palestinian households are using “several coping mechanisms, such as reducing food portions, eating only one meal per day, buying lower quality food, and eating less fruit, vegetables and meat.” Many families have taken out loans or sold personal assets, like land and jewelry, to buy food.

Women and children are among the hardest hit. A related study shows that “chronic malnutrition is rising steadily,” and that iron and vitamin A deficiencies are reaching alarming levels.

Hospitals and clinics, most of which are run by the Palestinian Authority’s health ministry, are still coping with critical shortages of medicines and supplies, insufficient electricity (the Gaza Strip’s main power plant was destroyed by Israeli bombs in June 2006), and staff who in some cases have not received wages in over a year.

The World Bank estimates that about 70 percent of Gaza’s population lives below the poverty line, and 44 percent of the able-bodied population is unemployed.

Israel’s closings of key entry points, including the Karni cargo crossing, remain frequent, starving Gaza of much-needed trade and supplies. While the problem has eased slightly, with truckloads moving at the rate of 51 a day compared to 30 a day during most of 2006, they remain far short of the 400 a day envisaged by a deal struck with Condoleezza Rice in November 2005, according to The Associated Press.

Karen Koning AbuZayd, the commissioner general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East, told an IRIN reporter last week that the humanitarian crisis in the West Bank and Gaza is “worse than ever.”

She said the needs are “much greater [now] than they were during the intifada,” the last Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation that started in 2000, “and that’s mainly because of the boycott of the Palestinian Authority over the past year” by Israel, the U.S. and other nations.

“We’re hoping now, with the national unity government having come into being [sworn in March 17], that there will be a change on the part of the international community — at least some of it — to lighten this boycott and to begin to deal with this government, and to give people their salaries back.”

The Israeli government has refused to deal with the new government, just as it spurned the democratically elected Hamas government over a year ago.

Ghassan Khatib, vice president of Birzeit University and former planning minister for the Palestinian Authority, writing at miftah.org, said, “The platform of the [new] government includes an explicit commitment to respect previously signed agreements between the PLO and Israel. It also expresses respect for the relevant resolutions of the UN and international legality. Finally and most importantly, Hamas recommitted itself to the ongoing cease-fire with Israel in Gaza and promised to expand it to the West Bank.”

Norway, not part of the European Union, recognized the new government at once. On March 19 its deputy foreign minister, Raymond Johansen, met with Palestinian officials. He called upon “European countries, and even other countries, [to] support this unity government.”

A meeting March 20 in Ramallah between Palestinian Finance Minister Sallam Fayyad and Jacob Walles, the U.S. consul general in Jerusalem, represented the first official U.S. contact with a member of the new government, although Washington’s recognition of the entire Palestinian Cabinet is regarded as unlikely.

malmberg @ pww.org