Food Insecurity in the Occupied Palestinian Territory: Reflections in Light of the COVID-19 Lockdown

by Tracy Kuo Lin, Rawan Kafri, Weeam Hammoudeh and Tiziana Leone

Food insecurity continues to have far reaching impacts on the lives, health and wellbeing of people throughout the world, particularly in countries experiencing conflict and/or high levels of poverty. Conflict has been shown to be a key driver of severe food crises. Not only are 60 percent of those living with chronic hunger located in countries experiencing conflict, but also the prevalence of undernourishment in conflict-affected low and middle-income countries is between 1.4 to 4.4 percentage points higher on average than countries in the same income category not affected by conflict. In the Palestinian context, the protracted conflict and occupation exert a detrimental impact upon food production and availability. In particular, the occupation impedes food production through restricting access to resources such as agricultural land and water.

As part of our project ‘Re-conceptualising Health in Wars and Conflicts: A New Focus on Deprivation and Suffering in the oPt,’ we investigated the impact of occupation on food deprivation. Our analyses suggest that living conditions under occupation increase the incidence of food insecurity and are detrimental to dietary diversity. This study is particularly relevant in light of the current COVID-19 related lockdowns which further exacerbate an already dire situation.

The ongoing occupation in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) poses a challenge to achieving and sustaining basic human rights, including access to food. In the West Bank (5,655 square kilometres), the Oslo II Accord divided the territory into three administrative divisions: Areas A, B and C. Area A is administered exclusively by the Palestinian Authority; whilst Area B is administered by both the Palestinian Authority and Israel. Within the majority of the territory – Area C and the Gaza Strip – movement is highly restricted, affecting farming and availability of food. On Gaza’s coastline, the buffer zones restrict fishing to only three nautical miles offshore. Due to constant issues with the sewage system the waters immediately outside Gaza are highly polluted and fishing is hazardous.

Checkpoints and continuous violence and harassment by Israeli settlers are the primary obstacles Palestinians face in accessing agricultural land. In addition, the Separation Wall (708km) has crippled agricultural activities and continues to damage food production. The wall partitioned over 50,000 dunams of land, with only a limited number of farmers in the West Bank permitted to access their farmland. Furthermore, Israel has full control of water resources such as aquifers in the West Bank, with 83 percent of water from these aquifers used within Israel. Palestinians are not permitted to construct wells or water pipelines, and these restrictions force farmers to purchase tanked water, raising production costs and decreasing farm profitability. Adding to the calamitous situation, global reserves of key goods, particularly medical supplies, are depleting as a result of the current emergency which may result in future shortages.

In Gaza, the population residing in close proximity to the buffer zones are not only in direct physical danger – as buffer zones are continuously bombed or shot at by the Israeli military – but also experience agricultural hardship as many farmlands are located within the buffer zones. Fishermen crossing the buffer zones are at risk of getting shot at and arrested by the Israeli military. This has not only significantly decreased the number of workers employed in the fisheries sector, but also the amount of seafood supplies.

Palestinian markets are now reliant upon food sourced from Israel. As such, the food prices are linked to the Israeli market, with Palestinian purchasing power six times lower than for Israelis. This differential results in food prices being too high for some Palestinian families to afford.

For our analysis focusing on food deprivation, we used data from the 2014 Socio-Economic and Food Security surveys to quantitatively examine the impact of conflict and occupation on food security, which included information on respondents’ exposure to a range of political, economic, and agricultural hardship and food insecurity experiences. In our analysis, we find that economic stress and unstable economic conditions have a negative effect on food consumption, increasing food insecurity at the household level. Furthermore, we find exposure to political stressors (including political violence) is associated with increased economic and agricultural stress. In other words, political stressors adversely affect food security through their effects on economic and living conditions. When we look at areas that are particularly vulnerable, the analysis finds that Area C households have significantly lower dietary diversity as compared to households elsewhere. In addition, it appears that households may be  reducing dietary diversity in order to maximise caloric intake when experiencing food insecurity in conflict settings. In Gaza, those living proximal to buffer zone experience significantly lower dietary diversity, and on average, those experiencing a higher level of food insecurity report lower dietary diversity. The analysis highlights that deprived households often have multiple vulnerabilities that interact with each other and increase the negative impacts on food security.

The difficult living conditions have no doubt been exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic – as OCHA has already warned – adding additional challenges to the existing economic and agricultural difficulties. Many small businesses and employers are negatively impacted by the closures and restrictions on movement in the occupied territories. In the West Bank fewer Palestinians are able to maintain gainful employment, intensifying economic hardship which will in turn lead to further food insecurity. Restrictions on movement have effectively shut the two passenger crossings (Rafah and Erez) between Gaza and the rest of the world. While the Kerem Shalom goods crossing continues to operate as normal, there are still extreme shortages of medical supplies. Households that are already vulnerable are likely to be harder hit, where already stretched capacities may not be able to cope without assistance.

The interaction between the ongoing pandemic and protracted occupation adds to the continuing urgency for the international community to provide adequate humanitarian aid to the population, while at the same time advocating and working towards solutions centred on justice that aim to remedy structural and political conditions. Once the pandemic is over, it will be important for aid programmes to also provide agricultural assistance as relief. Agricultural assistance in prolonged conflicts can work to stimulate the economy, decrease the level of unemployment and aid dependency, and reduce food insecurity. During a pandemic, it is even more critical to provide humanitarian aid to mitigate the damage to living conditions. In the long term, however, structural solutions and a resolution to the conflict are necessary to prevent further suffering.

This blogpost is a product of a collaborative research project between LSE and Birzeit University titled ‘Re-Conceptualising Health in Wars and Conflicts: A New Focus on Deprivation and Suffering‘. The project forms part of the Academic Collaboration with Arab Universities Programme, funded by the Emirates Foundation.