The decision by the United States, the European Union and Canada to cut financial assistance to the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, after the Islamist group won the January Palestinian legislative elections, not only fails to respect the results of a clean and democratic electoral process; more ominously, it will further harm Palestinian children, already punished by the effects of Israel's occupation of their land.
Following the 2000 intifada, Israeli government policies have had a markedly negative effect on Palestinians, but more especially over children's health and quality of life. A policy of widespread closures has paralyzed the Palestinian health care system and become a form of collective punishment that has turned children into the main victims.
Severe disruption of health care has affected over 500,000 children, particularly immunization programs, dental examinations and early diagnosis activities. The deterioration of water and sanitation services has given rise to an increase in the frequency of water-borne diseases. It is estimated that over 50 percent of children living in Gaza suffer from parasitic infections.
A persistent climate of violence has resulted in 745 children being killed since September 28, 2000, while 435 are still in detention. Children's basic rights, guaranteed under international conventions to which Israel is party, such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child are systematically violated by the Israeli government.
A study carried out by the Gaza Community Mental Health Program on children's reaction to war has found that 33 percent of primary school age children have acute levels of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and 49 percent moderate levels. The symptoms of PTSD include nightmares, attention deficits and violent behavior. Less than 3 percent of children surveyed had no symptoms of PTSD. Children living in an area of refugee camps north of Gaza city were found more likely to experience PTSD.
People in the West Bank and Gaza continue to be victims of ongoing violence and serious economic decline. It is estimated that 64 percent of Gazans are living below the poverty line, and around a quarter of them are living in deep poverty, a situation that puts children's health and psychosocial well-being under severe strain. UNICEF stated in 2005 that, "The combination of significant distress and long-lasting effects of rising poverty and unemployment is having an extremely negative effect on all basic human development indicators."
A survey carried out by UNICEF found that less than two-thirds of children have acquired the needed immunity. Also according to UNICEF estimates, more than 25 infants per every 1,000 of those born alive die before the age of one in the Occupied Territories, a situation that is even worse in the Gaza Strip.
Three out of 10 children under five years of age are anemic, while stunting (height for age) stands at 9.0 percent and wasting (weight for height) at 2.5 percent. These high levels of stunting reflect a protein-deficient diet caused by the increasing difficulties Palestinians face in obtaining healthy foods on a regular basis. Food insecurity has also led to vitamin and micro-nutrients deficiencies both in children and adults. Child malnutrition rates are as bad as those in some sub-Saharan countries.
In this context, the comments of Dov Weissglas, a senior Israeli government adviser have been totally lacking in human concerns. At a recent meeting with other high Israeli officials Weissglas said, "It's like an appointment with a dietician. The Palestinians will get a lot thinner, but they won't starve."
A recent editorial in Haaretz stated, "The unsuccessful comments by Dov Weissglas - whose position and source of authority in the present government is difficult to understand - regarding the need to put the Palestinian nation on a diet, but not to starve it, symbolizes more than anything the humiliating way in which Israel relates to the Palestinians, which was one of the factors in Hamas' rise to power. It
is unnecessary and degrading to recommend a diet to a hungry and unemployed nation, in addition to which Israel is still responsible for preventing hunger in all parts of the West Bank that it controls as an occupying power."
As things stand now, there is something perverse about making children pawns in a complex political game. It is urgent, therefore, that both funds being retained by Israel as well as international aid from the U.S., the EU and Canada be redirected to organizations such as the World Health Organization and UNICEF. They have expertise in the region and know how to make the best use of those funds, which should be addressed to solving the most pressing needs of the Palestinians, particularly the children, the most vulnerable among them.
Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant and winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.
© 2006 The Daily Star