Rome, 15 April 2002 - Hunger and malnutrition are on the rise among Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned today in a special alert. "The total blockade of the West Bank and Gaza Strip has paralyzed the Palestinian economy, which is so vulnerably dependent on Israel and already severely weakened by frequent border closures, to such an extent that it is now in a deep recession, with millions of people severely impoverished and extremely food insecure."

According to the alert, malnutrition is on the increase, reflected in recent estimates of a 10.4 percent increase in the incidence of low birth weights and a 52 percent increase in the still birth rate in the West Bank. Citing humanitarian agencies operating in the territories, the FAO alert says that many homes are now without water and electricity, and what little food they have is rotting.

The UN food agency voiced "serious concern" about the on-going large-scale destruction of important Palestinian infrastructure, including farm assets such as stores, irrigation systems, greenhouses, water facilities, orchards, and even removal of topsoil from an estimated 8,000 hectares of land.

FAO says that by "severely restricting Palestinian access to international markets, Israel has become virtually the sole supplier of food to the West Bank and Gaza Strip" accounting for more than 95 percent of Gaza's total agricultural imports and almost 100 percent of its exports. The result, says the FAO alert, "is that border closures have extreme consequences for the food security of the Palestinian people"

The alert also voices concern over confiscation of agricultural land and water resources by Israel and estimates that freshwater resources available to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip amounts to 112 cubic metres per person a year, compared to 377 cubic metres for Israel.

FAO said that it has had plans since November 2001 to field a mission to the territories to assess the food and nutrition situation but this has not been possible due to the prevailing adverse security conditions. "Nevertheless," said FAO, "all available information points to a major catastrophe underway in the West Bank and Gaza Strip."