(February 2005) As it enters its fifth year, the second intifada or Palestinian uprising continues to exact a heavy toll on the 3.6 million Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.1
By the end of January 2005, more than 3,570 Palestinians had been killed in the conflict and nearly 28,500 injured, with civilians comprising a majority of casualties.2 Children have often been the victims: Four years after the intifada’s start on Sept. 28, 2000, more than 600 Palestinian children had been killed and some 10,000 injured.3
Such casualty counts, however, provide only a partial picture of the scope of suffering and destruction during the intifada. Ongoing violence between Palestinian militants and Israeli forces and continuing Israeli occupation and policies have had a devastating impact on nearly every aspect of life in the Palestinian territories.
The Political Backdrop: Violence, Stagnation, and Signs of Change
Over the past four years, plans for staunching the bloodshed and bringing Palestinians and Israelis back to a defunct peace process have come and gone without lasting effect. Most prominently, the internationally sponsored “Road Map”—a performance-based plan to end the violence and achieve a two-state settlement by 2005—stalled in 2003, with each side accusing the other of failing to fulfill its provisions.
In the absence of progress on the diplomatic front, attacks by Palestinian militant groups on Israeli troops, settlers, and civilians have continued, as have Israeli assaults on Palestinian residential, agricultural, and commercial areas and government and security infrastructure. There have also been curfews, closures, and other restrictions on movement; assassinations and excessive use of force; settlement expansion; and construction of a barrier separating much of the West Bank from Israel.
Yet recent events have altered the terrain and given rise to cautious hope. The death of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Yasser Arafat in November 2004, and the election of his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, in January 2005, opened the way for renewed contact between the Israeli government and the PA. The presidential election and the first two rounds of municipal elections, along with preparations for completing the four-phase municipal election process and holding parliamentary elections later this year, also mark an advance for internal political and security reform in the territories.
Meanwhile, Abbas’s efforts to halt militant attacks against Israel through intra-Palestinian talks and Palestinian police deployments suggest that a ceasefire might be attainable. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s tentative resumption of ties with Abbas, along with Sharon’s plan for unilateral disengagement from Gaza, signal a further shift in the status quo.
On the Ground: Destruction, Suffering, and Awaiting Change
On the ground, however, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza continue to endure the impact of the intifada and Israeli occupation and policies. Home demolitions have occurred primarily in Gaza and have recently increased. Here, 1,304 homes were destroyed between January 1 and November 1, 2004, out of a total 2,389 homes destroyed since September 2000.4
Restrictions on movement in the territories have been imposed through curfews, the West Bank barrier, and more than 700 checkpoints and other roadblocks.5 Agricultural land has been leveled and seized as a security measure as well as for construction of the West Bank separation barrier and settlement expansion. In addition, extensive damage to public utilities during Israeli military actions in the territories has had debilitating, long-term consequences.
Despite the apparent shifts in the political status quo, supporting one’s family, accessing healthcare facilities, and pursuing an education in the territories remain fraught with difficulties.
Unemployment and Poverty
Economically, the intifada has resulted in a sharp rise in Palestinian unemployment and poverty levels. Closures and tight border restrictions have severely impeded the flow of labor and goods, cutting thousands of Palestinian workers off from jobs inside Israel. The effects are most dramatic in Gaza, where already strict border controls “substantially increased” during 2004 in response to attacks by Palestinian militants; an average of 1,946 workers per day crossed into Israel from Gaza in 2004, as compared to 29,865 in 1999.6
Between the third quarter of 2000 and the third quarter of 2004, unemployment in the Palestinian territories jumped from 10 percent to 26.8 percent (rising from 7.5 percent to 22.3 percent in the West Bank and from 15.5 percent to 36.8 percent in Gaza).7 Some 47 percent of Palestinians live below poverty thresholds, and as many as 600,000 cannot afford to meet their basic needs.8
Food Insecurity and Malnutrition
Rising unemployment and falling incomes, along with restrictions on movement and the leveling and seizure of agricultural land, have resulted in an increase in food insecurity and a decline in food consumption and nutrition levels. In 2003, the Food and Agriculture Organization, in cooperation with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and World Food Programme, conducted an assessment of the food and nutrition situation in the West Bank and Gaza for the purpose of supporting design and implementation of relief and development efforts.9 At the time of the assessment, 40 percent of the population was food insecure, while an additional 30 percent was at risk of becoming so if conditions remained unchanged.
As the quantity and quality of food consumption declines, the assessment notes, “surveys indicate that childhood malnutrition is a major concern for some and that more widespread nutritional problems are emerging.” Among the most vulnerable to food security are households headed by women, those with a large number of dependents and an unskilled breadwinner, and those with chronically ill or disabled members. The West Bank barrier has also disproportionately affected farmers and others, as many have been cut off from their agricultural lands, greenhouses, and orchards.
The assessment report concludes that, although between one-half and three-quarters of the population in the territories receive food assistance, most “get far too little and often too infrequently to be food secure.” Long-term solutions, the report says, will require job creation, higher incomes, and free passage of labor and goods.
Restrictions on movement also have severely impeded the ability of Palestinians to reach healthcare facilities and the ability of humanitarian organizations to provide aid and services. Many health outreach programs in remote areas have been cut off, and Palestinian ambulances and medical teams face restrictions on movement, delays of access, and arbitrary searches by the Israeli military.
Border closures, as well as internal closures and roadblocks, prevent many Palestinians from traveling from Gaza to the West Bank or from villages and outlying areas to cities for treatment and preventive care. While the restrictions on movement limit access to health care by all segments of the population, women and children face special risks. Between late 2002 and late 2003, coverage of essential reproductive health services fell from 82.4 percent to 71 percent, and the infant mortality rate in the territories has risen each year since 2000.10
Given the high total fertility rate in the Palestinian territories (estimated at an average 5.6 births per woman for 2000–2005) and the large number of children under age 15 (46 percent of the population in 2002), access to reproductive and pediatric care will remain a central concern.11
The continuing violence has been equally disruptive to the West Bank and Gaza’s education systems. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs notes “evidence of a serious decline in educational standards,” citing UNRWA reports of sharp declines in exam pass rates between the 2000–2001 and 2003–2004 academic years.12
Similarly, the Palestinian Commission for Citizens’ Rights describes “extensive damage to the educational process” caused by closure, siege, and curfew: most students are unable to enroll in or reach universities outside of their surrounding locales; teachers in some areas are unable to reach their workplaces with regularity; and teachers and students sometimes have to traverse checkpoints on foot at considerable risk to their safety.13
Once again, implications are especially dire for women and children. For women, education helps foster gender equity in the workplace and society, while also contributing to heightened health and nutrition awareness and women’s ability to provide for themselves and their families. For children, primary and secondary schooling are central to academic and social development as well as to psychological well-being. Moreover, since education plays a pivotal role in human capital development, its disruption and deterioration bode ill for a society struggling to halt economic decline and push forward with state and institution building.
While international donors and agencies provide substantial financial and in-kind assistance to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, the severity of the situation, ongoing violence, and Israeli occupation and policies have meant the continuation and worsening of economic and humanitarian crises.
Although recent political and diplomatic developments offer some semblance of hope, slowing and reversing current trends will require far-reaching changes on the ground—allowing for free, safe movement of people and goods, economic recovery, and restoration of health and education systems.
Dana Leigh Hearn is a freelance translator, writer, and editor based in Takoma Park, Maryland. She also works as an independent consultant for Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Technology in Education.
- This total includes a West Bank population of approximately 2.3 million and a Gaza Strip population of 1.3 million (estimate based on U.S. Census Bureau figures for mid-year 2004).
- Palestinian Red Crescent Society, “Total daily numbers of deaths and injuries—West Bank & Gaza (figures inclusive of Sept. 29, 2000 to Jan. 29, 2005, midnight),” accessed online at www.palestinercs.org, on Jan. 30, 2005.
- Health Development Information and Policy Institute press release (Sept. 29, 2004), “Four Years of Intifada: Statistical Overview,” accessed online at http://electronicintifada.net, on Jan. 29, 2005.
- United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Emergency Appeal 2005: 4, accessed online at www.un.org, on Jan. 30, 2005.
- United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)—Occupied Palestinian Territory, Humanitarian Information Fact Sheet (January 2005), accessed online at www.humanitarianinfo.org, on Jan. 30, 2005.
- OCHA, Gaza on the Edge: A Report on the Deteriorating Humanitarian Situation in the Gaza Strip (2004): 2, accessed online at www.reliefweb.int, on Jan. 28, 2005.
- Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), Second Quarter 2004 Report on Palestinian Socio-Economic Conditions (2004), accessed online at www.palestine-pmc.com, on Jan. 29, 2005; PCBS, “Press Release on Labour Force Survey Results, 299,000 Unemployed Palestinians during the 3rd Quarter 2004” (2004), accessed online at www.palestine-pmc.com, on Jan. 30, 2005.
- World Bank press release, “World Bank Report: Palestinian Economy Remains Stagnant After Four Years of Intifada” (2004), accessed online at http://web.worldbank.org, on Jan. 30, 2005.
- Food and Agricultural Organization, Report of the Food Security Assessment, West Bank and Gaza Strip (FAO: 2004), accessed online at www.fao.org, on Jan. 28, 2005.
- OCHA, Humanitarian Information Fact Sheet.
- Human Development Report Office, Human Development Report 2004: Cultural Liberty in Today’s Diverse World (New York: United Nations Development Programme, 2004): 154, accessed online at http://hdr.undp.org/reports/global/2004/, on Jan. 30, 2005.
- OCHA, Humanitarian Information Fact Sheet.
- Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens’ Rights, The Status of Palestinian Citizens’ Rights, Ninth Annual Report, 1 January 2003–31 December 2003: 43, accessed online at www.piccr.org/report/ereport03jan.html, on Jan. 30, 2005.