The occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) includes the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with a population of 2.38 million and 1.42 million people respectively.1 About half of the population are refugees.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been marked by periods of different intensities. Following the second Intifada (upsurge) initiated in 2000, the Israeli government has launched the construction of a Barrier around the West Bank and tightened the movement of Palestinians in and out the territory. Since the Hamas victory in the January 2006 elections, donors have focused on humanitarian assistance and budgetary support, which cover approximately 1/3 of the Palestinian National Authority budget. The Gaza Strip has been under a blockade since the Hamas Party took control in June 2007, with extremely severe restrictions on the entry of goods and virtual halt of exportations and movements of Gazan people in and out of the territory. Operation Cast Lead launched by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) against the Gaza Strip in December 2008/January 2009 marked the last outbreak of fighting and caused a large number of deaths and wounded as well as widespread destruction of housing and infrastructure. Violence in Gaza has not fully subsided despite the unilateral ceasefire declared by Israel on 18th January 2009.
Economic growth in the oPt has markedly decreased due to the conflict, through the following: controls imposed by Israel on the entry and exit of goods, services and people; impediments to construction and infrastructure investment in the oPt; the expansion of Israeli settlements and associated violence; and the direct destruction of houses, crops, animals, water and sanitation infrastructure by the IDF. In 2008, GDP per capita was just above US$1,000 per capita compared to US$1,610 in 1999. Early 2009, about 21% of West Bank households and 42% of Gaza households were unemployed. While the economy in the West Bank showed slight signs of recovery, it may simply reflect additional resources received in response to the last war episode in Gaza and thus not be sustained.
Repeated drought in the past few years – including 2009 – and limitations of access to cultivation and grazing lands, irrigation and inputs have also contributed to decrease local food production and affected agricultural livelihoods. The country is also prone to other disasters including industrial pollution and earthquake. Food and fuel prices have decreased compared to 2008 but remain at a higher level than their past 5–year average. In the absence of positive signs towards a resumption of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, the already severe food insecurity and vulnerability situation in the oPt is not expected to improve in the coming few years.
How many people are food insecure in the oPt?2
Based on an economic criteria close to estimating households' purchasing power for food and essential non]food expenses, it is estimated that almost 1.6 million persons are food insecure in the oPt, i.e. 38% of the population. These include 625,200 food insecure persons in the West Bank (25%) and 973,600 in the Gaza Strip (61%). In addition, 269,300 persons in the West Bank (11%) and 218,950 persons in the Gaza Strip (16%) are vulnerable to food insecurity. While 35% of West Bank households can be considered food secure, only 17% are food secure in the Gaza Strip.
Food insecure households are characterized by their low levels of income and/or consumption compared to the cost of a minimum food basket and other essential expenditures (housing, health, education, transportation) and their food and non]food expenditures have decreased compared to the year before.
The food security situation in the West Bank has remained pretty stable since 2003, although the situation of various livelihood groups has showed a different pattern according to changes in the conflict and economic situation. Food security has markedly worsened in the Gaza Strip since the blockade started in 2007 and further more immediately after the Israeli military offensive at the end of 2008. Increased humanitarian assistance has only been able to prevent the trend from worsening.
Acute malnutrition rates amongst under-5 children are low but chronic malnutrition has risen over the past few years, reaching 10.2% in 2006 (compared to 7.5% in 2000). Micronutrient deficiencies (anaemia, vitamin A and iodine deficiencies) among children and women have reached levels indicative of a severe public health situation. All nutritional status parameters are worse in the Gaza Strip than in the West Bank.
Who are the food insecure people?
In both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, rural households, female-headed households, households with a large number of female and child members and families with a high number of dependents are more likely to be food insecure than households without these characteristics. Food insecure households also rely more on casual work and low-paid, unskilled labour as their main source of income, compared to food secure households.
In the West Bank, food insecurity and vulnerability to food insecurity is also higher among refugee households, as well as in households whose head has a low level of education attainment, is unemployed, or relies on irregular wage labour, low-paid jobs or social benefits for its income. In the Gaza Strip, food insecurity affects a wider range of households but is also closely linked to unemployment of the head of household or reliance on low-paid activities.
Where are the food insecure people?
Food insecurity levels are worse in the Gaza Strip than in the West Bank. The Hebron governorate in the West Bank presents the highest proportions of food insecure households (31%), most likely as a result of the proximity of Israeli settlements, more severe mobility restrictions and drought conditions. Food insecurity was also slightly more prevalent among households located in the Buffer/Seam Zone (between the green line and the West Bank Barrier) compared to other locations in the West Bank (28%).
In the Gaza Strip, Rafah, Gaza and Khan Younis governorates show the highest prevalence of food insecurity (between 62%-66%), most likely because factories and outlets of the large manufacturing and construction sectors most hardly hit by the import restrictions were located in these areas. The Israeli offensive also caused large damage in Rafah.
Why are Palestinian people food insecure?
Food availability per se is not the most critical issue presently in the oPt, even though in the Gaza Strip the variety of food available on the markets is limited by the blockade. Food is generally supplied in sufficient quantities and acceptable variety in local markets, essentially from imports. Yet, current availability of food on the market could be hampered given the volatility of the peace process and the high dependency on the Israeli market. Local food production would be larger should land, water and other inputs be more accessible. As own food production is very limited, households' economic access to food available on local markets is in the present condition the main issue.
Households dedicate at least half of their total expenditures to food, making them highly sensitive to variations of food prices and income levels. Economic access is constrained by a combination of: (i) artificially high food prices due to inflated transportation costs and dependence on Israeli imported goods, and (ii) low purchasing power due to the lack of well-paid jobs, business and investment opportunities. Restrictions on the mobility of goods and people within and outside the oPt imposed by the Israeli authorities are the main cause of high prices and low incomes. Rapid demographic growth at approximately 3% annual growth - with the Palestinian population projected to double in approximately 20 years . as well as exposure to natural disasters such as drought and floods (possibly reflecting longer-term climate change) compound these difficulties and call for immediate coordinated action.
Nutritional status and food utilization are also endangered by the low availability of qualified health services, limited access to safe water sources and sanitation facilities (especially in rural areas) and consumption of a poorly diversified diet due to economic difficulties to purchase food rich in micronutrients and good quality proteins.
After years of conflict, food insecurity affects population groups according to their livelihoods and the combined effects of violence, natural disasters and economic shocks, rather than because of their refugee/non-refugee status. Most of the food insecure households in the oPt are by now chronically food insecure, but the severity of food insecurity deepens whenever the conflict situation worsens or additional shocks (natural, economic) occur.
The resilience of Palestinian households to the continuous degradation of their food security situation, particularly in the Gaza Strip, can be attributed to a significant extent to the efficacy of their coping mechanisms. Support from relatives within or outside the oPt (credit through traders between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, remittances) and local charities, is essential in this regard. The vast majority of households also resort to changes in their food consumption patterns (quantities, quality) in order to decrease food expenditures. In the Gaza Strip, food insecure households were unable to further reduce the amount of food purchased, and only quality could be further decreased.
However, most of the coping strategies, even if they are reversible (e.g. switching to less preferred but cheaper food, decreasing the amount of food consumed, foregoing health or education expenditures, and purchasing food on credit) can have a permanent cost on lives and livelihoods, through poorer health and nutritional status, excessive indebtedness and loss of future opportunities for higher skills and better paid jobs. Low-cost strategies such as suspension of payment of utilities and use of life savings have been exhausted for most households.
As such, humanitarian assistance is a crucial complement to householdsf own coping mechanisms. One third of West Bank households had received assistance in the 2nd semester of 2008, of which about half benefited from food parcels and more than one third got cash. Accounting for the worse food security situation in the Gaza Strip, 71% of households received assistance there, mostly with food. UNRWA and WFP are the main providers of food aid to refugees and nonrefugees
respectively. Both agencies also implement food voucher3, cash transfer and food- or cash-for-work programmes, while other UN agencies such as FAO, UNDP and UNICEF, and NGOs support livelihoods interventions through inputs distributions, training, infrastructure repairs and job creation.
Recommended response options
Food insecure households are unable to secure sufficient income to meet their essential food and non-food requirements due to the lack of income-earning possibilities as a result of Israel's restrictions to movement of goods and people, and artificially inflated food and transport costs. The high food and fuel prices internationally and the last war with Israel in the Gaza Strip have compounded this situation. Local food production is limited due to poor access to land, water and inputs, and vulnerability to climate change. The growth of children and the health status of vulnerable household members are compromised by the degradation of health, water and sanitation services.
While humanitarian food and non-food assistance in the oPt is essential to prevent further degradation of food security and malnutrition levels, it is insufficient to lift households out of food insecurity. Resumption of peace talks with Israel and suspension of the various restrictions are the only ways to address the basic causes of food insecurity. Meanwhile, increased emphasis should be given to interventions that take into account both protection issues and livelihood support, with the view not only to prevent food insecurity to worsen but also to avoid that vulnerable households become food insecure.
A number of interventions to increase local food availability, improve households' economic access and strengthen food utilization and nutritional status are already ongoing and would deserve being expanded, while a few others could be initiated. Possible response options combine humanitarian relief and longer-term livelihoods support and include:
a) Enhancing local food production through:
. local procurement, including 'poor farmers-to-poor households' interventions;
. processing and marketing support;
. distributions or vouchers for crop and animal production inputs; and
. land reclamation, rehabilitation and expansion of irrigation and other agricultural equipment.
b) Supporting households' income through:
. social assistance through conditional (against work) or unconditional (for those unable to work) transfers of cash, food - and non-food vouchers - where supplies and prices on markets are reasonably stable, such as in the West Bank and with careful monitoring in the Gaza Strip. as well as in-kind food distributions, alone or in combination;
. job creation through support to income-generating activities; and
c) Protecting and improving nutritional status through:
. encouraging the production (including home gardens), processing, marketing and consumption of micro-nutrient-rich food (vegetables, fruits, animal products), using some of the interventions listed above as well as communication efforts and direct provision of micronutrients to selected groups (e.g. at school and through health centres);
. micronutrient supplementation policy implementation;
. better diet of school children through school feeding;
. restoring safe sources of water and supporting access to safe water (tanks, cisterns etc.) to avoid infectious diseases and concomitant losses of nutrients;
. developing and enforcing a food safety policy and mechanisms to ensure food safety.
Targeting criteria for the various programmes depend on the objectives and intervention modalities. They would best combine geographic (e.g. prevalence of food insecurity), socioeconomic (e.g. household size, gender of head of household, level of income, ownership of certain types of assets etc.), physiologic (e.g. age, nutritional status etc.) criteria, as well as self-targeting mechanisms when feasible (e.g. transfers against work).
Monitoring of changes in the food security situation, attached to decision-making on interventions, is essential through periodic household surveys, ad hoc rapid assessments, market monitoring and project monitoring and evaluation mechanisms. A proper coordination mechanism should be established to formulate and implement long term food security policy.
1 PCBS Census 2007
2 Indicators used to define food insecurity combined income and/or consumption levels (US$/capita) and trends in food and non-food expenditures (decrease versus no change).
3 UNRWA vouchers are used as part of the distribution process. The vouchers are exchanged for food parcels at distribution centres, not at shops as in the WFP urban voucher programme.