Dar Al Hayat newspaper writes …

Arnold Vercken Al-Hayat – 27/03/07//

When I met Om Robeen, a Palestinian mother of five from the town of Beit Lahia in the Gaza Strip, she told me she used to consider herself lucky. Her husband had a job in Israel, giving the family a stable income. Life was reasonably normal: the children were in school and when all household expenses were paid, there was even enough money left over for a little gold jewelry for special occasions.

But then, five years ago, Israel closed the Erez crossing for Palestinian workers, citing security concerns as the peace process with the Palestinians faltered. Life has since been a series of hardships.

Though she is only 28 years old, she has deep lines of fatigue and worry etched across her face. Her husband is now among the growing and frustrated ranks of Gaza’s unemployed. To keep food on the table over the past five years, the family had to sell their belongings and then spend their savings. Finally, Om Robeen’s prized jewelry went up for sale.

Ever resourceful, Om Robeen used the money from the sale to buy a cow and start a small dairy business. It was a great idea, but the timing was badly wrong.

The frequent closures of the Karni Crossing into Gaza last year meant that animal feed became only sporadically available and at soaring prices. To keep the business running, Om Robeen had to buy on credit and sank into debt.

Desperate, she sought help from the Ministry of Agriculture, where she was told she would be eligible to participate in a project run by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in Gaza. WFP supplies female farmers with a food ration so that they can use their savings (that they would have spent on food for their families) to buy what they need to keep small ventures going. In the Beit Lahia area alone there are nearly 500 families benefiting from the project.
Om Robeen’s business finally took off. For a short time she was able to produce nearly 400 kilos of cheese and other dairy products every month that earned her a relatively hefty income of US$763. Hers seemed a story of determination and success. She began to feel lucky again.

But having come this far, she was confronted with perhaps her worst nightmare: upheaval in Gaza. With a stalling political process and the consequent unprecedented economic deterioration, frustration and hunger continued to eat away at the very social fabric of Palestinian society. It did not help that Palestinian political competition did not end at the ballot box but moved, often violently, onto the streets.

The formation of a Palestinian national unity government earlier this month brought in a sign of hope, though lots of political uncertainties inside and outside the occupied Palestinian territory still cast a long shadow.

There is no recipe for an economy to grow under such unstable conditions. Investors have no confidence, potential consumers have no cash and small enterprises, which once gave hope in times of uncertainty, are now dying slow deaths as operating costs soar. Instead of buying food, poor Palestinians today have become dependent – and perhaps more than ever before – on handouts from the international community.

Humanitarian aid can never make up for sound economic activities and these in turn would never become sustainable without a solution for what all agree is a political problem at heart.
The weakening economy is clearly leading to a marked decline in living standards. According to a recent WFP/FAO survey, 84 percent of the population in Gaza and 60 percent in the West Bank were reducing their living expenditures at the end of 2006 and selling off assets to buy food.

The report also warned that an estimated 46 percent of Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territory are food insecure or vulnerable to food insecurity, meaning they are unable – or on the verge of being unable – to afford all their basic food needs. In Gaza alone that number has climbed to 67 percent, meaning that almost one in seven people in Gaza are approaching a condition known the world over simply as hunger.

Food assistance alone cannot help the population of Gaza. Only a safe environment without intra-Palestinian political tensions could bring a measure of confidence back to the economy and, ultimately, only a political agreement acceptable to both the Palestinians and Israel will bring real and sustainable hope back to the people of Gaza.

Om Robeen is feeling the desperation of the population. Her worry is that she must now sell her cow like she sold her jewels as the last resort to feeding her family. But what next? With little left to hope for, she now fears the answer.

*Arnold Vercken is the UN World Food Program’s Country Director in the occupied Palestinian territory.
*Original English


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