Friday, May 4, 2007

Hunger in Eden

Rashid, a West Bank villager, explains that an Israeli settler took over his olive grove. "I said to him, 'This tree is fifty years old. Did your grandfather plant it, or did mine?'"

The most surprising part of the West Bank -- to me anyway -- is how beautiful it is. For some reason I though the whole place would be as dry and bleak as the Judean desert between Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley. But the suburbs north of the capital quickly give way to panoramic countryside that seems southern Italian, with terraced olive groves, red hills, and flowering fruit trees.

Of course, not all is idyllic in this rural idyll. The first clue that something was amiss in Yanoun -- a Palestinian farming village near Nablus that I visited yesterday with an official from the World Food Program -- was the skittish behavior of the local children. They ran and hid from us, or cried when we tired to say hello. The watchtower on the ridge overlooking the village was another giveaway that this place is a conflict zone. Yanoun is surrounded by three Israeli settlements, the inhabitants of which which have made clear that they want their Palestinian neighbors to clear out. The settlers make armed patrols through Yanoun -- by car or horseback -- destroy farming equipment, and last month they kidnapped, tortured and killed a local shepherd, according to residents. The scared children thought we were settlers.

But that's not all that's happening. Though it's hard to believe that food could be scarce in this land of milk and honey, the 24 families who live in Yanoun are being slowly starved. The settlements now control access to about 96 percent of the village's land making commercial agriculture nearly impossible. And though Yanoun could possibly support itself with some kind of highly cultivated garden in the bowl shaped valley beneath, they don't have enough water to do so because the settlements have taken over their rain catching ground cisterns. And even if they could grow produce, the villagers would have trouble getting it to market. The reliable roads to the region are for Israelis only. The rest are clogged with checkpoints. So the people of Yanoun -- like some 400,000 other people in the West Bank -- scrape by with the help from the WFP.

The WFP brought me here to see an example of what they called "food insecurity" -- a condition not of outright starvation but of scarcity that occurs when people don't have reliable access to enough food to have productive lives. At first I was suspicious of the term -- sounds like a way of justifying NGO operations in places where there isn't famine. And in fact, the inhabitants of Yanoun don't look hungry. But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has so dislocated the rural West Bank's population that they have become dependent on foreign aid. And several years of living on the five basic food stuffs given by aid organizations -- wheat, salt, sugar, chickpeas and oil -- has taken a toll on public health, which you can see by the rotting teeth on the kids of Yanoun. Of course, international donors could end this culture of dependence in a second by cutting aid. In which case, Israeli settlers could have these pretty hills pretty much to themselves.

Kirstie Campbell of WFP comforts a scared village girl.

--Andrew Lee Butters/Jerusalem

No comments: