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West Bank And Gaza (Humanitarian Situation)

Volume 404: debated on Tuesday 29 April 2003

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A humanitarian crisis is accumulating in the West Bank and Gaza. Two and a half years of violence and closure have caused rapid economic and social decline. Poverty has increased dramatically with some 60 per cent. of Palestinians now living on less than $2 a day. Unemployment stands at 53 per cent. and many families are now dependent on food aid. Families have sold their assets, borrowed from friends and neighbours and cut their intake of food. The people are running out of coping mechanisms.The severity of the situation is highlighted by the sharp decline in health indicators. According to a recent study by the al-Quds and John Hopkins Universities, the incidence of acute malnutrition in Gaza (13.3 per cent.) is comparable to levels in Zimbabwe (13 per cent.) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (13.9 per cent.). Per capita food consumption has dropped by an estimated 25–30 per cent. since September 2000. Insanitary conditions in urban areas are the norm, with broken sewerage lines and littered streets. The incidence of diarrhoeal and parasitic diseases is rising.The context for this crisis is an intensification of military incursions and house demolitions by the Israeli defence forces which has resulted in more civilian deaths and injuries. Sustained road closures continue to restrict the free movement of people and essential supplies between the occupied territories and Israel, as well as within the occupied territories. Access for humanitarian workers and services is being denied or delayed on an almost daily basis, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society. These restrictions contravene Israel's obligations under the Geneva Convention and they are impeding the effectiveness of any response to the humanitarian crisis.

Of particular concern is the construction of the "security fence" between Israel and the occupied territories. The fence will have serious humanitarian consequences. Current estimates indicate the northern and Jerusalem sections of the fence, approximately 215km long, will leave 290,000 Palestinians on the Israeli side of the fence. Of those, some 70,000 do not have Israeli residency permits and may therefore be forced to move east of the fence to retain access to basic services. Palestinians living in the occupied territories are likely to find their livelihoods drastically affected by the separation of villages from their water sources and agricultural lands. Some neighbourhoods will be cut off from health and education services and vital infrastructure. Others may be literally divided in two by the fence.

The economic effects of the crisis are significant. A recent study by the World Bank analysed the effect of the intifada, closures and curfews on the Palestinian economy. During the past two years the economy has shrunk by a half—real Gross National Income is now 48 per cent. lower than in September 2000, while the population has increased by 9 per cent. Movement restrictions placed on Palestinians have caused economic stagnation and a drastic decline in private sector activity. Many people have lost their livelihoods. The population is increasingly dependent on public sector salaries, with salaries paid by the Palestinian Authority making up 49 per cent. of wage income in the West Bank and Gaza.

In the face of this crisis, the Palestinian Authority's Ministries of Health and Education and municipalities have managed to maintain only a basic network of public services. Schools, hospitals and clinics are supported by UN agencies especially UNRWA (the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees) and by Palestinian and international non-governmental organisations. UNRWA's programme includes emergency job creation programmes, shelter and food aid but the agency's capacity continues to be constrained by funding shortfalls.

The international community's response has focused largely on short-term support aimed at meeting the immediate humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people. The World Bank, IMF and the European Community have played a leading role in shaping and supporting a strategic response to the deepening crisis. Key contributions include support given to UNRWA, budgetary assistance given by the EC to the Palestinian Authority, and employment generation and basic services programmes.

Support given by donors directly into the budget of the Palestinian Authority has played a crucial role in preventing the collapse of public administration and the economy in the West Bank and Gaza. This has offset the decline in domestic revenue and the budget deficit which resulted from Israel's withholding of Palestinian tax revenues. Now that Israel has resumed the transfer of these revenues, the EC is able to redirect its funding to a finance facility aimed at alleviating the effect of the arrears accumulated by the Palestinian Authority over the past two years.

DFID has provided £68 million to the Palestinians in 2002 and we will provide a similar level of support during the current year. This includes the UK share of EC funding, which was £31 million in 2002. These funds are being used to support a combination of emergency and development assistance. Some examples of the support we are providing are:

Emergency programmes in health, trauma counselling and special educational needs provided through local nongovernmental organisations;
Employment generation programmes operated through the World Bank;
Health and education, in the form of non-salary support provided direct into the budget of the Palestinian Authority.

This is a crisis which no amount of humanitarian assistance can resolve, which needs a political solution. The World Bank estimates that if the international community were to double its assistance to the Palestinians the effect on poverty levels would be no more than a few per cent decrease. Without an end to closures and restrictions on the movement of Palestinian people and goods, the economy will continue to deteriorate. The only solution to the humanitarian crisis is a successful peace process leading to the establishment of a viable Palestinian state living in peace alongside a secure Israel.

HMG remains strongly committed to the implementation of the road map for peace between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. With agreement on the publication of the road map and the appointment of a new Prime Minister and Cabinet, the prospects for peace have improved, but implementation will be difficult. The Government will continue to work closely with Israel and the Palestinian Authority and the Quartet to secure the implementation of the road map.

DFID will provide continuing support for the peace process and for building the capacity of the Palestinian Authority. We are providing assistance to the Palestinian Negotiation Affairs Department to help build and strengthen its negotiating capacity. We also plan to support public administration and civil service reform, development of the constitution and the establishment of the new Prime Minister's Office.