Hunger in Nablus’ Old City

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Forty-two year old Nabegh Ibreek still cannot believe that he is poor. As he points to the remains of his small television station, destroyed by an Israeli tank shell during one of its incursions into the Qasaba quarter of Nablus’ old city, Ibreek curses his fate. “In my worst nightmares, I never imagined that one day I would have to borrow food from my neighbors, who are not much better off than me. For three nights in a row, our dinner has been a can of fava beans, tea and bread,” he says disbelievingly.

Things were not always this way for Ibreek. In 1994, he and his wife invested their entire family savings of 3,000 Jordanian dinars to build a local television station, which they called “Ein Al Balad.” Mostly, the station transmitted programs taped off the Arab satellite channels because the people of Qasaba and neighboring quarters could not afford to install satellite dishes and receivers.

The project was successful in covering the family’s expenses from the money they made off advertisements and announcement, which usually included congratulations, condolences, Tawjihi matriculation scores, weddings or other social occasions.

Now, the station has all but gone under. The Oslo Accords, signed in 1993 and bringing the Palestinian Authority and a certain level of economic prosperity to the territories, is gasping its last breath under the ever-escalating Israeli aggression and invasions. Like Ibreek’s project, the Authority’s ability to achieve economic growth has collapsed along with many people’s hopes.

“Our project began to falter just a few months after the Intifada began,” says Raeda, Ibreek’s wife. “So we cut the costs of advertisements to NIS 255.” Five Israeli shekels is now just a bit more than one United States dollar. “Then we were forced to bring them down again and again until we were accepting advertisements for NIS 25. Then during Operation Defensive Shield in April we could not work for 14 days straight because there was no electricity.”

Raeda says with every Israeli operation, the business failed a bit more until it was completely destroyed when a tank shell hit the transmitter. “They fired the last fatal shot at our station and with it all our hopes,” she says bitterly.

Her husband feels the same. “I think I lost the project of a lifetime. I don’t know how or when I will be able to rebuild the station,” he says. But Ibreek admits there are more urgent issues to tend to – getting food on the table and clean water to drink. While his neighbors accepted a can of powdered milk for their baby from a group of foreign volunteers, Ibreek refuses to be on the receiving end of charity. He says he just can’t accept this for himself or his family.

Ibreek is not the only one in this bind. Many old city residents, numbering 30,000 people, are in much the same situation, especially after the most recent 11 days of curfew imposed by the Israeli army after the old city’s reoccupation é the third time in the past five months. While he spoke, Ibreek pointed to a group of children scrambling between the piles of cement and iron doors torn from their hinges by Israeli troops during their raids on Palestinian houses.

“Look at their faces and bodies. They are yellow and skinny. Their backs and bellies are practically one. These are the signs of slow death.” Ibreek is worried that the hunger may affect even more than their stomachs. “I am afraid that the poverty will wear down our morale, where the Israeli military campaign has failed.”

According to the most recent estimates of the Central Bureau of Statistics, 65 percent of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza live under the poverty line. In 1996, the poverty rate was around 26 percent and in 2000 many were alarmed that it had risen to 32 percent. The current numbers are no less than shocking.

In a state of destruction

On a tour of the old city, Ibreek takes a group of journalists and photographers to the “Housh” at the center of the city to survey the damage.

Just a few meters from the Housh, which is directly adjacent to the famous Hanbali mosque in the heart of Al Qasaba, the narrow alleyways, with their ancient tiles and shops that once displayed a variety of fruits, vegetables, raisins, dried figs, thyme, soap and meats, now are a disaster area. The beautiful streets that once received visitors and local residents now look like they have been brutally dissected, their innards ripped open and spilled on the ground.

Water pipes, sewage and drainage systems and phone lines all lay in mangled piles, mixed together with soil made muddy by the gushing water. A foul smell rises from the chicken shops where chickens perished for lack of food and care and frozen meat stores where meat spoiled because the electricity had been cut off for days on end.

The situation reached the point of such extreme deterioration that Nablus mayor Ghassan Shaka’a made an urgent appeal to environmental and human rights organizations to urge Israeli forces to allow municipal vehicles to enter the city and evacuate the dead birds, the spoiled meat and the piles of garbage spread along the streets.

In the Hadadin market, homes belonging to the Sirisi and Masrouji families had their walls blown out from the inside so that Israeli soldiers could walk freely in the city without walking in the streets. Sitting on a pile of broken furniture and scrambled clothing amid piles of stones and dirt is a woman with a small child in her arms, drinking from a bottle of milk. Another child, no more than three years of age, searches around her, looking for an unknown something.

“Suddenly the wall exploded,” said the woman. “They burst in like beasts. First there were three and then six and then there were twelve of them. Even though they put a hole in the wall, they still insisted on searching the rest of the house. You can see the mess they left behind.”

She fell silent and returned to her crying child before saying, “We have nothing left to ward off our hunger. Nothing more than this can of milk.”

“What the Israeli tanks and bulldozers have done in the old city is a destruction of the civil society and shows the evil desire of our occupiers to eliminate everything that is cultured and beautiful,” says Shaka’a. “It is a systematic destruction of the infrastructure, of everyday life. People have been without work for too long without an income. The army is making it very difficult and sometimes very dangerous for urgent services to be provided to the people.”

The hunger and destruction in Nablus is an extreme example of what is happening throughout the occupied Palestinian territories. This has attracted concern from the United Nations and other international agencies, which agree that the conflict has led to rising rates of poverty and unemployment so that some one million Palestinians are now in need of food, shelter or medical attention.

According to Al Najah University economics professor Abdel Fattah Abu Shukur, “Seventy-five percent of the Palestinian population is living under the poverty line of $2 a day while the poverty line in Israel is $20 a day.”

Makhoul says the main problem is the lack of purchasing power. The work stoppage, especially that in the Israeli market, has deprived the Palestinian market of cash flow. “Palestinian workers are the gauges for economic growth,” he notes.

Malnourished Children

Health experts in the Nablus district are warning of spreading poverty, especially in the city’s Old City, which they say will no doubt lead to a deteriorating health situation. Hala Hamdan, a physician for the women’s health program at the Palestinian Medical Relief Committees, says that she has found an overwhelming number of families in the Old City with health problems.

“On our visits to large families (20 members) in the old city, we found the spread of anemia in children and their mothers,” she says. When the team followed up on the families’ meals, they found that most were suffering from iron deficiency anemia, which means that children eat sparse meat, fish or chicken. “It was clear that the average income for families is no more than NIS20 [a day] and most families depend on assistance and food aid from international or local organizations.”

Confronting poverty

Hussein Abdel Ghafer, 42, and a math teacher for the past 12 years, splits his monthly salary of NIS 2,220 with his two unemployed brothers. One used to work inside Israel and the second was employed in a sewing factory in Nablus. The closure forced the brother working inside the Green Line into unemployment, while the second brother was laid off by a boss unable to pay his workers. Now he tries to make a few shekels by fixing the neighbors’ clothes on his mother’s old sewing machine.

Abdel Ghafer now needs additional income with these extra burdens, and because his son was shot in the neck and needs constant medical treatment to avoid paralysis. He has made some extra money tutoring children before their exams, but it is still not enough. Abdel Ghafer hopes for outside financial aid for families like his that have suddenly find themselves among the poor.

There are some channels of aid coming into Nablus but not nearly enough to cover the devastating results of the Israeli reoccupation. International agencies such as UNRWA provide food and medical services to refugee families while local, Arab and Islamic organizations provide food packages to needy families from time to time. The Palestinian Authority even manages to provide help to some families through its ministry of social affairs.

On any given day when the curfew is lifted, one can see swarms of people queuing at bank counters, hoping that the clerk behind the desk will tell them that their sons or relatives abroad have transferred them money.

Still, despite these difficult times, the residents of Nablus are determined to overcome. Nabegh Ibreek says he must and will recover. “The only thing I have left is an old car that is worth 1,300 dinars. I will sell it when they lift the curfew and we will fix whatever we can fix. We will get another transmitter, even if it is used. The important thing is that we start broadcasting Ein Al Balad once again. It must remain a witness to what is going on in our homeland.”

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