NEW YORK — The decision by the United States, the European Union and Canada to cut financial assistance to Hamas, the winner of the recent Palestinian elections, not only disrespects the results of a clean and democratic electoral process; more ominously, it will further harm Palestinian children, already punished by the effects of the Israeli occupation. Following the 2000 intifada, Israeli government policies against Palestinians have had a marked negative effect on the Palestinian people, especially on Palestinian 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 makes children the main victims.
Severe disruption of health care has affected more than 500,000 children, particularly with regard to immunization programs, dental examinations and early diagnoses. The deterioration of water and sanitation services has given rise to an increase in the frequency of water-borne diseases. It is estimated that more than 50 percent of children living in Gaza suffer from parasitic infections.
A climate of violence has resulted in the deaths of 745 children since Sept. 28, 2000, while 435 remain in detention. Children’s basic rights guaranteed under international conventions to which Israel is party, such as the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), 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 children of primary-school age suffer from acute levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and 49 percent are reported to have it at moderate levels. PTSD symptoms include nightmares, attention deficits and violent behavior. Fewer than 3 percent of the 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 psycho-social 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 necessary immunities. Also according to UNICEF estimates, more than 25 infants of every 1,000 born alive die before the age of 1 in the occupied territories. The situation is even worse in the Gaza strip.
Three of 10 children under 5 are anemic, while stunting (short height for age) is at 9 percent and wasting (low weight for height) is at 2.5 percent. These levels reflect a protein-deficient diet caused by the increasing difficulties Palestinians face in obtaining healthy foods on a regular basis.
Food insecurity has led also to vitamin and micronutrient deficiencies both in children and adults. Child-malnutrition rates are as bad as one would expect to find in some sub-Saharan countries.
In this context, the comments of Dov Weissglas, adviser to Israel’s prime minister, shows a lack of human concern. At a recent meeting with other Israeli officials, Weissglas said, “It’s like an appointment with a dietitian. The Palestinians will get a lot thinner, but they won’t starve.”
A recent Ha’aretz editorial states: “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. Moreover, Israel is still responsible for preventing hunger in all parts of the West Bank that it controls as an occupying power.”
There is something perverse about making children pawns in a complex political game. It is urgent, therefore, that funds being retained by Israel as well as international aid from the U.S., the European Union and Canada be redirected to organizations such as the World Health Organization and UNICEF. They have regional expertise and knowhow to make the best use of those funds, which should be used to deal with the most pressing needs of Palestinians, particularly children and the most vulnerable among them.
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