Figures on Palestinian food security require closer look

Food security and a healthy economy go hand-in-hand. While the latest data regarding food security seems to suggest that Palestine’s economy is getting better, this article addresses the illusory nature of those numbers and the role international aid plays in propping up the Palestinian economy.

At a glance, the latest data regarding post-assistance food security in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip—released by the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Food Programme and UNRWA last week—seems to warrant optimism.

2011 was the second straight year that the number of those living in food insecurity declined in the occupied Territories. The Gaza Strip has seen a 16 percent drop from 2009 to 2011, from 60 percent to 44 percent; in the West Bank, food insecurity rates have decreased five percent in the same two-year period, bringing the total to 17 percent.

But, as UNRWA itself admits, a deeper look into the numbers is less encouraging.

In the West Bank, Palestinians who live in refugee camps have actually experienced a rise in food insecurity—from 25 percent in 2009 to 29 percent in 2011. 25 percent of Palestinian households in Israeli-controlled Area C are food insecure—eight percent more than the West Bank average. Herders’ families in Area C are in a precarious situation, with 34 percent suffering from food insecurity.

And while food insecurity stands at just under 30 percent in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip combined, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported in May of this year that 50 percent of infants and children under two in the occupied Palestinian Territories have iron deficiency anemia. According to the same WHO report, malnutrition and stunting in children under five “is not improving” and could actually be “deteriorating.”

The second intifada saw dramatic changes in Palestinians’ eating habits. Israeli-imposed movement restrictions on both people and goods strangled the economy; Palestinians’ inability to access farm lands due to Israeli prohibitions and the separation barrier led to reduced agricultural output. Under these pressures, Palestinians increasingly came to rely on cereals, pulses, potatoes, vegetable oil and sugar rather than more costly and more nutritious foods like protein-rich fish and meat, fresh fruits and vegetables.

In 2003, at the height of the second intifada, FAO reported that meals in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip often consisted of just tea and bread. Despite these dire circumstances, FAO did not recommend increased food aid. Instead, the organization stated that the most pressing issue, economic access—or the ability to buy food—must be addressed. In the short term, that meant job creation; in the long term, that meant investment in agriculture.

Yet, almost a decade later, critics say that most aid organizations remain focused on temporary, short term solutions rather than the underlying problems.

Haneen Ghazawneh, a researcher at the Palestinian Economic Policy Research Institute (MAS), located in Ramallah, says that international aid is still “going [more] to emergency assistance and food aid and less to development projects.”

This actually “contributes to the decline in agriculture,” Ghazawneh says.

Ghazawneh also takes issue with the latest food security data.

“When we talk about economic access [to food] that means having permanent jobs,” she explains. “My worry about these recent reports is that they exclude East Jerusalem, [where] people have very limited [work opportunities]. It’s Area C.”

And the apparent gains in Areas A and B, she says, might be illusory.

Ghazawneh remarks that, in the West Bank, many of those who are food secure are on the Palestinian Authority payroll. But much of the PA’s funding comes from foreign aid, leaving employees vulnerable to changes in the political climate and the global economy—as was the case in July, when the PA could pay only half of employees’ salaries.

“We’re talking about the workers who are the most secure, who have permanent jobs, and they are uncertain,” Ghazawneh says. “The situation is not sustainable at all.”

As many Palestinians have increasingly embraced a culture of consumption and debt, some have bought houses and cars they can’t afford. If salaries suddenly stop coming and people fall behind on their loan payments, the banks could have problems. And this, perhaps, could fuel a larger financial crisis that would impact food security.

UNRWA, FAO, and WFP share Ghazawneh’s concern about the nature of so-called growth in the occupied Palestinian Territories, stating, “It is clear that the Palestinian private sector cannot sustain or maintain the current economic growth led by the PA public sector, the foreign assistance and the tunnel trade economy for the Gaza Strip in particular.”

Ghazawneh adds that two additional categories lie between the two extremes of food secure and food insecure: “marginally secure” and “vulnerable to food insecurity.” There is constant flux between those middle groups.

Despite the decline in food insecurity in recent years, “the situation hasn’t changed that much,” Ghazawneh says, since the first food security assessment was conducted in the occupied Palestinian Territories in 2003.

Nora Murad is a co-founder of the Dalia Association, a Palestinian community foundation that, according to its website, “mobilizes resources for Palestinian-led social change and sustainable development initiatives.”

Speaking to IRIN, Murad says, “Dependency on international aid has resulted in a structure that is parallel to the occupation.”

She explains that while the Israeli occupation paralyzes the Palestinian economy, “the aid organizations distort the Palestinian economy in ways that undermine local sustainability, self-reliance and self-determination.”

Murad feels that pulling the plug on aid might actually help the Palestinians because it would show the world the true impact of the occupation.

“People would live,” Murad says. “Or people would die and the international community would stop supporting Israel.”

“Israel,” she adds, cannot “sustain this occupation on its own.”

A version of this article first appeared on IRIN.