GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – The Palestinian health minister declared a state of emergency Monday after a study commissioned by a U.S. foreign aid agency found a more than threefold increase in the number of young Palestinian children who are malnourished since fighting broke out with Israel.
The data, released Monday by the U.S. Agency for International Development, showed more than one-fifth of young Palestinian children are malnourished.
Fatima Abu Awili, 35, an out-of-work seamstress living in Gaza's Beach Refugee Camp, depends on handouts from the United Nations to feed her five children.
"We sold all that we can sell of our furniture to provide food to the children and we fear that in the future we will have nothing to sell and no one to borrow money from," she said.
She said she manages to scrape by with donated lentils, rice, potatoes, milk and sometimes frozen chicken, but she can't afford the healthy food a doctor recommended for her and her newborn.
The USAID study showed 22 percent of Palestinian children under age 5 were malnourished, up from 7 percent in an agency survey two years ago. Of that number, 9 percent suffered from acute malnutrition -- resulting from poor nutrition over the short term -- and 13 percent suffered from chronic malnutrition -- longer-term deficiencies that can result in stunted growth.
About 20 percent of children under 5 had some form of anemia, a red blood cell deficiency that reduces the amount of oxygen in the body.
Alarmed at the survey's findings, Palestinian officials called on the United States to provide health experts, vitamins and medical equipment.
Palestinian Health Minister Riad Zanoun announced a state of emergency and planned to form a steering committee of experts from several ministries.
"I call on the international community to work to end the real reason behind the health deterioration, which is the occupation, the curfew and the Israeli army," Zanoun said. "Without the real intervention of the world, all our efforts will only be temporary ones."
Israeli officials said as long as terror attacks continue, the military could not ease curfews that have made the Palestinian struggle for daily bread more difficult.
Yakov Adler, the medical adviser to the Israeli military office that deals with Palestinian civil affairs, agreed with the report's findings, but said there is no sign serious hunger or starvation is looming.
The survey, carried out by Johns Hopkins University and the humanitarian group CARE, found that the Gaza Strip was particularly hard hit, with 13 percent of children suffering from acute malnutrition, putting it on the same level as Nigeria, Somalia and Bangladesh.
A market survey also showed shortages of protein-rich foods, such as fish and chicken, among retailers. About half of retailers and wholesalers surveyed said they had shortages of infant formula.
About half of the 1,000 households surveyed in June said they had to borrow money to buy food.
Preliminary survey results reported last week showed 30 percent of Palestinian children were undernourished, but those numbers were based on a smaller sample and went down when all the data was factored in. A more comprehensive report is to be released in September.
The findings are grim, but there was little concern of a major humanitarian crisis or starvation. International organizations truck in food and medicine, military curfews in the West Bank are lifted periodically to allow people to stock up and vegetables and basic food in Gaza remains cheap. Still, not everyone can afford to buy more than the most meager provisions.
In Gaza's Beach Camp, Abu Awili said she was grateful at least vegetables are cheap -- because farmers are unable to export their crops into Israel.
"It's very hard for any family to meet the needs of their children because if they have the money they are not going to spend it all; they will fear for the coming bad days," she said, standing in the doorway of her home, holding her month-old daughter Nawal.
Sitting outside the house, her 10-year-old son, Ismail said: "I dream one day to come back home and get fresh food and fresh meat like what I see on television."