Gaza Beset By Food Shortages, Economic Woe

West Bank and Gaza, May 18, 2006

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    70 year-old Um Shaheen (left) depends on assistance to help her take care of five severely disabled daughters that range in age from 25 to 40 years old. Photo: Mercy Corps Photo:

As the representatives of donor governments made fresh vows to rapidly establish a flow of aid to Palestinians on Monday, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza continues.

The Hamas-led government in Gaza and the West Bank is unable to pay salaries to its 150,000-plus workers, and border closings have significantly curtailed critical export revenues and imports of food and other goods.

Families in Gaza need your help to persevere with the economy nearly grinding to a halt.

Isdud Al Najjar, Mercy Corps' program manager in Gaza, answered our questions on the growing crisis.

Q: How would you describe daily life there?

Isdud: It's very difficult, and it is getting worse and worse. Most of the families in the Gaza Strip are suffering from the border closure policy, price increases, lack of cash and cuts in international aid to the Palestinian Authority. Government employment accounts for nearly a quarter of the economy, and those workers haven't been paid in three months. Many farmers aren't able to export their vegetables to Israel because of long closures at the main crossing point. Taxi drivers cannot cover fuel costs because of price increases and shortages. Most families now depend on handouts from the United Nations' World Food Programme or charity to eat.

What is the mood like?

People are very nervous, and the tension is manifesting itself into a higher crime rate that police say is a direct result of the economic crisis.

Out on the streets, what kinds of indications do you see of a deteriorating humanitarian situation?

People are selling what they have to meet their basic needs. Women are selling their jewelry; men are selling their televisions and cars. Children are darting in and out of traffic selling things like gum and chocolates.

The shops are nearly deserted. People are buying nearly everything on credit - even a haircut at the barbershop. Children are walking to school because their families don't have enough money to pay for transportation.

Are you experiencing shortages of specific foods?

People are witnessing the first rationing of bread in living memory. The majority of basic goods in Gaza are imported, so the border closures have reduced supply and raised prices - in particular for sugar and wheat flour, which together represent about 80 percent of the caloric intake of Palestinians. On average, the prices of basic commodities have increased by 32.5 percent since January 2006, according to the World Food Programme. What's more, concerns about Avian Flu have led to the slaughter of many birds, further decreasing the food supply. As a result, the poorest households are cutting back on meals and relying on charitable assistance.

Who is most affected by the crisis?

There are 80,000 families in Gaza that are considered "hardship social cases" by the Ministry of Social Affairs. About a third of these receive food from the World Food Programme. For the rest, there is no longer a safety net. Families with small children, widows unable to work, people with disabilities - these are the most vulnerable groups. Many people with disabilities halted their therapies because they no longer can afford to pay for transportation and therapist fees.

How is Mercy Corps responding to needs?

For the last several weeks, Mercy Corps has teamed with a local organization to provide more than 200 people with disabilities with vital medical supplies that alleviate some of their financial burden and allow them to participate in their community. These items include crutches, walkers, sanitation supplies, medical beds, air mattresses and diapers.

Now, we're launching an emergency-aid effort to help 300 poor families with food, milk and other items, like kerosene cooking fuel. Donations will help more poor and vulnerable families secure some of their basic needs.

What are people's hopes and fears for how this crisis will end?

The Palestinian people hope that the borders will open up so humanitarian assistance and goods can get in and exports can get out. They're also hoping for a national government with a unified program to move the Palestinians forward. The fear is that a continued international boycott of the Palestinian Authority will shut down schools, the health care system and the economy, and trigger an endless cycle of violence and misery.

Donate online now to help the most vulnerable Palestinians meet their basic needs.