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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 February 2007, 18:48 GMT
UN alarm at Palestinian poverty
By Alan Johnston
BBC News, Gaza

Palestinian children in the Nusseirat refugee camp near Gaza
The UN says many Palestinians cannot feed their families
In a courtyard off a back street in Gaza City, sunlight streams through the leaves of a pair of olive trees and children play beneath their branches.

The scene is almost picturesque, but the poverty here is crushing.

The children's mother, Na'ima Iyad, can no longer afford to feed them.

And a new UN report says that more and more Palestinian families are in the same position.

Sitting on her veranda holding one of her 10 children, Mrs Iyad says: "Everybody in Gaza - in all of Palestine - is suffering from the economic situation.

"If you go to our neighbours you'll find the same problems. All the houses suffer from poverty - and poverty is very hard on people."

International sanctions

The UN study, carried out by the World Food Programme (WFP), talks of a "marked decline" in living standards.

It says that by the end of last year more than 80% of Gazans and 60% of West Bankers were reducing their daily expenditures.

The poorest families are now living a meagre existence totally reliant on assistance
Arnold Vercken
World Food Programme

The report warns that rising levels of unemployment and poverty are posing acute challenges to "food security" - a family's ability to provide itself with enough to eat.

The study talks of "economic suffocation" and says that Israeli security restrictions in the occupied West Bank and around Gaza are fragmenting the Palestinian economy.

Sectors like fishing and farming are being ruined.

Although the report does not refer to them, the past 12 months have also seen international economic sanctions on the Hamas-led Palestinian government.

They were imposed by Israel and the West because the administration refused to renounce violence and recognise the state of Israel's right to exist.

In their home beside the olive trees, the Iyad family gets by thanks largely to monthly WFP handouts of flour and other items.

The agency's director in the Occupied Territories, Arnold Vercken, says: "The poorest families are now living a meagre existence totally reliant on assistance, with no electricity or heating and eating food prepared with water from bad sources.

"This is putting their long-term health at risk."

Extended families

But people are not starving. International emergency assistance has been increased.

The number of Palestinians receiving UN food handouts has risen significantly. WFP alone is now feeding 600,000.

Palestinian farmers near Beit Lahia
The UN talks of the "suffocation" of the Palestinian economy

And despite its economic boycott of the government, the European Union is providing tens of thousands of the most vulnerable people with some funding.

At the same time large, extended Palestinian families are rallying as they traditionally do to support their weakest members.

And many of Gaza's poor are doing everything they can to help themselves.

The Iyad family is raising rabbits. And sometimes the children go out selling on the streets.

But this is a family with a special problem. It is locked in a feud with another clan.

Mrs Iyad's husband, Sami, would risk being killed if he left the house. He has not been able to drive his taxi for a year.

Confrontations of this kind are all part of the deepening poverty and rising social tensions in Gaza.

The feuds have become increasingly common and more and more violent as law and order has gradually broken down.

Mrs Iyad has been unable to find work herself and she says that she would sell anything in the house if it was worth selling.

This is a common response to the economic crisis.

The WFP report talks of families selling off their most prized assets - like work tools and even land.

And many months ago desperate women began cashing in their jewellery at the gold market.

The UN says that extreme coping mechanisms like these can only be stretched so far.

Ultimately, the report says, there have to be political solutions that eventually give rise to economic growth.

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