Tuesday, December 12, 2006

4 Months Into Aid Cutoff, Gazans Barely Scrape By

Published: June 18, 2006
In the fourth month without salaries from the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, the Abu Rizek family scours greenhouses after the harvest, looking for potatoes left in the ground.

Mariam al-Wahedi no longer receives her $21 a month from social services and is living off the $200 she got last month by selling her last piece of jewelry, a bracelet given to her 30 years ago. Khalid Muhammad, a policeman, moonlights in a friend's shop, selling used cellphone batteries for $2.25, and says he now yells at his wife and sometimes hits his children. Umm Jihad, with six children, begs in the market.

Awni Shibrawi, a jeweler, admits that he is almost too bad-tempered to go to work in his shop and sit all day doing nothing. Khadida Farajabah, a vegetable seller, says she has granted nearly $2,000 in credit, digging out the list she keeps inside her blouse, and cannot afford to give any more. Majid Nofad, a butcher, says business is down 60 percent and he has stopped giving credit after the total mounted to nearly $3,000.

More middle-aged men can be seen on the piers of Gaza, fishing with boys, to try to catch some protein for dinner. Couples are postponing marriage. Muhammad Kahloot, a colonel in the Palestinian police, is trying to decide whether he can afford the $700 his son, Khaled, needs to finish his last semester at the university, or whether to use the money for food and utilities.

When Colonel Kahloot uses his cellphone, he hangs up quickly, so his number appears as a ''missed call'' and he is not charged, leaving it up to a friend to phone him back.

Mr. Muhammad, 31, the moonlighting policeman, has four children. ''When my wife goes to the grocery, the owner says, 'Where's the money?' And she says, 'Maybe today, maybe tomorrow,' and this way we pass the time.'' Mr. Muhammad said the family eats beans and local greens, which are about 20 cents a pound. ''Forget about meat,'' he said, laughing. ''We don't know the chicken anymore. We hear in the news about the fish.''

The ordinary Palestinians of Gaza are coping as best they can in a world without salaries and very little money circulating, after the Western cutoff of aid to the Palestinian Authority, which Hamas took over in March. The Authority employs almost 40 percent of those with regular jobs in Gaza.

There is not a humanitarian crisis here yet, but one is building. No one knows anyone who is starving, but nearly everyone dependent on government salaries is eating less and less well, with a sharp reduction of chicken, meat and vegetables in a diet that is now based on the cheapest ingredients -- beans, potatoes, greens and bread.

The World Food Program, with 160,000 nonrefugee beneficiaries out of Gaza's population of 1.4 million, sends its workers on house visits. They say people are cutting down on the number of meals a day, and few are eating meat, eggs or yogurt, said Kirstie Campbell, a spokesman, who estimates that half the population of Gaza is not getting enough to eat.

At the same time, Dr. Ibrahim al-Habbash, the director of Gaza's largest hospital, Al Shifa, said that the worst shortages of medicines have been alleviated with increased donations from donors and Physicians for Human Rights/Israel, an advocacy group, while the Karni crossing from Israel to Gaza has been open more regularly in the last few weeks.

According to a new report issued this week by United Nations agencies here, ''the humanitarian situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has deteriorated rapidly in 2006, a result of the fiscal crisis facing the Palestinian Authority following the election of Hamas'' as well as continuing ''Israeli security and access restrictions.'' The number of Palestinian families dropping below the poverty level -- defined as $2.70 per person a day -- has increased by 9 percent already, the report says.

On May 31, the United Nations increased its emergency appeal to donors for the Palestinian territories for 2006 by 79 percent, from $215 million to $384 million, to deal with ''a deepening humanitarian crisis,'' said David Shearer, the director of the local United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The money would go for emergency job creation, cash assistance, food and medical supplies, he said, adding: ''That amount is not what we think is necessary but what we think we can handle.''

Ms. Campbell says the World Food Program will increase its supplies by 25 percent and distribute more canned meat and canned fish. It will also allow Palestinian Authority personnel, if they qualify as poor enough, to register for benefits.

The second major employer in Gaza, after the Palestinian Authority, is the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which is responsible for registered refugees -- some 70 percent of Gaza's population. The agency employs 9,100 Gaza residents and continues to pay salaries. But while in the past it gave little aid to refugees who worked for the Palestinian Authority, it is trying to serve those now poor enough to need it.

Gina Benevento of the United Nations agency said that 14,500 Authority employees are newly registered for aid in Gaza, and another 4,500 in the richer West Bank. ''In a few days, we expect the number in Gaza to reach 17,000, and we're planning for 23,000,'' she said. Families in Gaza are large, with an average of seven members.

The agency provides aid coupons for packages of flour, rice, sugar, powdered whole milk, sunflower oil and lentils. Each package is worth about $18 per person, per month, depending on the size of the family.

Unicef says it is tripling its appeal for the Palestinian territory to $22.7 million for this year, and says one in three newborns is ''at risk of dying in the hospitals of Gaza'' because of a lack of medicines and essential drugs, according to a spokesman, Damien Personnaz.

The United States and the European Union, the major donors of some $1 billion a year in aid to the Palestinian Authority -- half its income -- say that Hamas is a terrorist organization, and unless it agrees to recognize the right of Israel to exist, forswear violence and accept previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements, aid will largely stop.

The squeeze and the inability to pay salaries for the Authority's 165,000 workers has put Hamas under significant pressure, said government spokesman Ghazi Hamad. ''This is a big challenge for us, and we're trying to solve it through the president and political flexibility,'' he said. Then he conceded: ''It risks us as a government.''

The Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is negotiating with Hamas on a unified Palestinian political document, drafted by prisoners, that would implicitly recognize Israel in its pre-1967 boundaries. Mr. Abbas told Hamas that ''if you approve the political document, we can convince the West to pay and lift the siege,'' Mr. Hamad said. ''There's some flexibility in the European Union, but in the United States, I don't know.''

On Friday in Brussels, the European Union said it had drafted a temporary aid mechanism to provide payments of $200 a month to the poorest in Gaza, ensure fuel supplies and help keep health and social services going, all without dealing with the Palestinian Authority. Washington, which had objected to paying any salaries, says it will go along.

The Europeans hope to start the aid in July, with an initial European allocation of about $125 million -- about the cost of one month's salary bill for the Palestinian Authority. The Europeans also want Israel to stop withholding some $50 million a month in taxes and duties it collects for the Palestinians.

But Palestinians say they have debts they may never be able to pay, and that the new aid will not reach most of the Authority's workers.

Mr. Muhammad, the policeman, says he and his wife fight constantly now, usually over something involving the children. ''I used to give them a half-shekel for pocket money,'' he said, which is worth about a dime. ''Now they ask for money and I hit them. How can I gave them this when we need the shekels for food?''

Asked how long he could go on like this, Mr. Muhammad paused. ''Maybe two months, then all the fuel is gone,'' he said. ''Finally, I'll put the gun'' -- he reached below the counter to get his AK-47, which he stuck under his chin -- ''and kill myself.'' He laughed again, but not very convincingly, and the mark the muzzle made on his throat took a long time to fade.