One Meal a Day for Most Palestinians

by Jim Lobe

Dissident Voice
November 13, 2003


Most Palestinians living in the Israeli-occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank are eating only one meal a day, leading to malnutrition at levels found in sub-Saharan Africa, according to a new United Nations report.


The area is "on the verge of humanitarian catastrophe," adds the document released Wednesday by the UN Human Rights Commission's special rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler.


The report, based on a visit to the territories in July, as well as statistics accumulated over the past year by UN and US agencies, describes the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians as a "horrifying tragedy," and stresses that Israel has the right to take defensive measures to protect its citizens against attacks.


But Ziegler, a recognized authority on international law and human rights from Switzerland, charges Israel with failing to uphold its legal obligation to ensure the right to food of the civilian Palestinian population.


The result more than one-half of Palestinian households are currently eating only one meal a day and are fully dependent on international food aid.


"Many Palestinians who the special rapporteur met spoke of trying to subsist on little more than bread and tea," Ziegler wrote in his 24-page report.


"Severe malnutrition reported in Gaza is now equivalent to levels found in poor, sub-Saharan (African) countries, an absurd situation as Palestine was formerly a middle-income economy" with a rich agricultural base.


"The consequences of the ways in which current security measures are applied in the OPT (Occupied Palestinian Territories) are entirely disproportionate in the sense that they jeopardize the food and water security of the great majority of the Palestinians and thus amount to collective punishment," it added.


Ziegler called on Israel to "immediately lift internal closures within the OPT" that restrict movement and access to food, and to end "the regime of closures and curfews where these are causing an increase in the malnutrition and poverty levels of the civilian Palestinian population."


The report was released just one day after another UN study by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs warned that Israel's construction of a barrier separating Palestinian from Israeli populations around and within the West Bank will cause major additional hardships for Palestinian civilians, separating some 680,000 of them from their fields, jobs and schools.


When completed, the 640-km-long fence will also effectively expropriate or render useless some 14.5 percent of the West Bank, it added.


The Israeli government, which says the wall is necessary to prevent Palestinian suicide bombers from infiltrating into Israel and Jewish settlements, responded that no more than four percent of the land will be cut off by the barrier, and that the number of Palestinians to be affected will run into the thousands, not the hundreds of thousands.


Israel rejected an overwhelming vote by the UN General Assembly last month to cease work on the wall and tear down what has already been built.


Only four countries voted against the resolution: the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and the United States, as well as Israel itself. Washington earlier vetoed a similar Security Council resolution condemning the barrier's construction.


At the same time, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also appears to be increasingly concerned about the humanitarian situation in the occupied territories, particularly since armed forces chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Yaalon, told reporters late last month that Israel risked a social explosion if the situation remain unchanged.


The cumulative impact of curfews, roadblocks and crackdowns, he warned, are "tactics that operate against our own strategic interests," and are only increasing hatred for Israel among the Palestinian population that would translate into greater support for terrorism.


"The war," Yaalon said, "is taking place on the backs of civilians."


On Tuesday, Sharon announced an easing of restrictive measures in advance of Wednesday's investiture of a Palestinian government under its new prime minister, Ahmed Qurei.


"I have a strong desire to implement humanitarian measures rapidly but our problem is that as we take important steps to ease the situation and open the roadblocks, terrorist actions will increase," he said.


The statement came after Sharon reportedly told his fellow Likud Party members Monday he was increasingly concerned that a collapse of the Palestinian Authority would force Israel to assume responsibility for the welfare of Palestinians in the occupied territories.


But in his report Ziegler insists that "the vast majority of the OPT is under the effective control of the occupying army," thus Israel has the responsibility under international humanitarian law to ensure that the civilian population receives adequate supplies of food and water.


He also criticized building of the barrier, which he referred to as "the security fence/apartheid wall," in a reference to the racial separation policies implemented by the National Party government in South Africa.


Ziegler noted, "many Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals and non-governmental organizations" believe the barrier is intended to further a strategy of "Bantustanization" of the Palestinian territory that will make it impossible for any future Palestinian state to "realize the right to food of its own people."


"The confiscation of land, extension of settlements and settler-only roads, and the building of the security fence/apartheid wall, where this deprives thousands of Palestinians of their lands, homes, crops and means of subsistence, is a violation of the right to food," says the report.


"For many Palestinians, the inability to feed their families is leading to a loss of human dignity, often heightened by bullying and humiliation at checkpoints," said Ziegler, who noted that during his nine-day visit to the territories a soldier at one checkpoint "deliberately took aim with his weapon at very short range at the special rapporteur's vehicle."


"Fortunately, the soldier did not fire his weapon, but the special rapporteur noted that these types of incidents are occurring far too frequently."


Jim Lobe is a political analyst with Foreign Policy in Focus (online at www.fpif.org). He also writes regularly for Inter Press Service. He can be reached at: jlobe@starpower.net


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