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.

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Monday, December 11, 2006

The Pattern May Change, if ...

AFTER a 217-year march of major presidential nominees who were, without exception, white and male, the 2008 campaign may offer voters a novel choice.

But as Barack Obama, the senator from Illinois whose father is from Kenya, spends this weekend exploring a presidential bid in New Hampshire, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, the first woman to represent New York in the Senate, calls potential supporters in Iowa, the question remains: are Americans prepared to elect an African-American or a woman as president?

Or, to look at it from the view of Democrats hungry for victory in 2008, is the nation more likely to vote for a woman or an African-American for president?

Without question, women and blacks have made significant progress in winning office. The new Congress will include 71 women — one of whom will be the first female speaker of the House — compared with 25 when Representative Geraldine Ferraro, a Queens Democrat, became the first woman to run as a major-party vice presidential candidate in 1984. There will be 43 blacks in the new Congress, compared with 13 when the Congressional Black Caucus was formed in 1969. A Gallup Poll in September showed a steady rise in the number of people who expect the nation to elect a woman or an African-American as president one day: Americans, it seems, are much more open to these choices than, say, someone who is an atheist or who is gay.
Times are indeed changing. But how much?

Over the past of the past eight years, in the view of analysts from both parties, the country has shifted markedly on the issue of gender, to the point where they say voters could very well be open to electing a woman in 2008. That is reflected, they say, in polling data and in the continued success of women running for office, in red and blue states alike. “The country is ready,” said Senator Elizabeth Dole, the North Carolina Republican, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 2000. “I’m not saying it’s going to happen in ’08. But the country is ready.”

By contrast, for all the excitement stirred by Mr. Obama, it is much less certain that an African-American could win a presidential election. Not as many blacks have been elected to prominent positions as women. Some high-profile black candidates — Harold Ford Jr., a Democrat running for the Senate in Tennessee, and Michael Steele, a Republican Senate candidate in Maryland — lost in November. And demographics might be an obstacle as well: black Americans are concentrated in about 25 states — typically blue ones, like New York and California. While black candidates cannot assume automatic support from black voters, they would at least provide a base. In states without big black populations, the candidate’s crossover appeal must be huge.
“All evidence is that a white female has an advantage over a black male — for reasons of our cultural heritage,” said the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, the civil rights leader who ran for president in 1984 and 1988. Still, he said, for African-American and female candidates, “It’s easier — emphatically so.”

Ms. Ferraro offered a similar sentiment. “I think it’s more realistic for a woman than it is for an African-American,” said Ms. Ferraro. “There is a certain amount of racism that exists in the United States — whether it’s conscious or not it’s true.”

“Women are 51 percent of the population,” she added.

Many analysts suggested that changing voter attitudes can best be measured in choices for governors, since they, like presidents, are judged as chief executives, rather than legislators. There will be one black governor next year — Deval L. Patrick in Massachusetts, the second in the nation since Reconstruction.

By contrast, women will be governors of nine states, including Washington, Arizona and Michigan, all potential battleground states in 2008, a fact that is no doubt viewed favorably by advisers to Mrs. Clinton.

“Voters are getting more comfortable with seeing governors as C.E.O.’s of states,” said Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Kansas Democrat. Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm, a Michigan Democrat who won a second term last month, said in an interview that when she first ran, she had to work harder. “Not this time,” she said in an interview. “They are used to a woman being governor.”
Of course, governors don’t have to handle national security. And Mrs. Clinton has used her six years in the Senate to try to counter the stereotype that women would not be as strong on the issue, especially with the nation at war. Mrs. Clinton won a seat on the Armed Services Committee, and was an early supporter of the war in Iraq.

Mr. Obama is in many ways an unusual African-American politician, and that is why many Democrats, and Republicans, view him as so viable.

Mr. Obama is a member of a post-civil-rights generation of black politicians and is not identified with leaders like Mr. Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York, who are polarizing to many white voters. He has a warm and commanding campaign presence that, as he showed in Illinois, cut across color lines.

Donna Brazile, a prominent Democratic strategist who is black, said that she had been deluged with e-mail messages from people looking to volunteer for Mr. Obama — and that most of the requests were from white voters.

Moreover, there is abundant evidence that attitudes toward black candidates are changing among white voters. In Tennessee, Mr. Ford lost his bid to become the state’s first black senator since Reconstruction, but by only three percentage points.

Surveys of voters leaving the polls showed that 40 percent of white voters supported Mr. Ford, compared with 95 percent of black voters. More intriguing, the final result was the same as what the exit polls had suggested. Before this, in many races involving black candidates, the polls predicted that they would do better than they actually did — presumably because voters were reluctant to tell questioners they did not support the African-American.

That said, Mr. Ford lost his race after Republicans aired an advertisement that Democrats said was explicitly racist. Many Democrats said a lesson of the loss was that racial appeals still have force, particularly in the South.

Race and gender are big issues in American politics, but they are not the only ones, particularly in the coming race. Mr. Obama, should he run, may find his lack of experience will be far more troublesome to voters than his color. He is 45 and serving his first term as senator.
Mr. Obama said that many black voters he spoke with have serious questions about whether America is ready to elect an African-American president.

“I think there is a protectiveness and a skepticism within the African-American community that is grounded in their experiences,” Mr. Obama said in an interview. “But the skepticism doesn’t mean there’s a lack of support.”

David A. Bositis, senior political analyst with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a nonpartisan Washington group that studies black issues, said that it would certainly be hard, but not impossible for an African-American candidate to win.

“I certainly felt in the ’90s that if Colin Powell had been nominated on a major party ticket, he would have had a very good chance to win,” Mr. Bositis said. “If it’s the right black candidate, I do think there is propensity to elect a black. But it has to be the right black candidate.”

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