Omid Memarian
Inter Press Service (IPS)
July 29, 2008 - 5:00pm

In both the West Bank and Gaza, young people aged 15 to 24 are the most likely of any group to be unemployed, while the number of households in Gaza below the poverty line has reached an historic high of nearly 52 percent, according to a new report by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) issued Thursday.

"The unprecedented level of poverty in Gaza is bad news," UNRWA spokesperson Christopher Gunness to IPS in a call interview from Jerusalem. "To resign a whole generation to a future without hope is not in the interest of anyone. It is not in the interest of the refugees we serve as UNRWA, and it is not in the interests of anyone who believes in the wider interest of peace and stability."

In its report, UNRWA says "the number of households in Gaza below the consumption poverty line continued to grow, reaching 51.8 percent in 2007 (from 50.7 percent in 2006), despite significant amounts of emergency and humanitarian assistance". By contrast, household poverty levels in the West Bank fell to just over 19 percent from 24 percent in 2006, "likely driven down by the lifting of the international embargo on the Palestinian Authority".

The UNRWA report, which is based on figures provided by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), says the average unemployment rate was among the world's highest at 29.5 percent.

"When adjusted to account for the sharp increase in absentee workers in Gaza during the second half of the year, joblessness in Gaza between July and December 2007 reached an unprecedented high of 45.3 percent," it said. The figure in the West Bank was 25.5 percent, about double the average unemployment rate for the Middle East and North Africa region.

"The Government of Israel (GOI) and donor boycott of the newly-elected Hamas government, loss of fiscal revenues and the strike of public employees in the last trimester of 2006 combined to produce a 7.8 percent reduction in real GDP in 2006," the report said. "This decline was accounted for mainly by regression in public sector GDP combined with a stagnant private sector."

"There's no doubt that the crisis in Gaza is closely tied to Israel's siege of the territory," Sarah Leah Whitson, director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division, told IPS.

"The very minimum of food that is allowed in, the severe restrictions on electricity and fuel, the inability of Gazans to leave the territory for work or school, and their inability to import needed goods or to export products all mean that Gazans are forced to live at or below subsistence levels," she said.

According to the PCBS data, in the Hamas-run Gaza strip, the public sector continued to add jobs, including through job creation programmes instituted by the Hamas administration, accounting for a quarter of job growth in 2007.

Looking to the future, the report concludes that "more troubling for the medium and long run has been the low level of investment spending in both the public and private sectors".

Regarding the interrelation between the socio-economic situation in Gaza and the level of insecurity and human rights violations, Gunness told IPS that the right to a decent standard of living has to be protected.

"We, as UNRWA, believe in the highest level of human development, and see that as an important aspect of our work and of the work of all the U.N. family here," Gunness added.

"We have to make sure that there are decent standards of living among the certain part of the population we serve, and these latest figures of poverty show that this is not been properly addressed," said Gunness. "The most important priorities for the U.N. right now are to get... Gaza open for both humanitarian goods and for import and export because we need to serve the refugee population."

"Israel's closure policy constitutes unlawful collective punishment, in violation of international law," said Whitson. "At the same time, there's no evidence that the policy has served to prevent rocket attacks by armed groups into Israel. Egypt shares in the blame for the suffering of the Gazans, given its refusal to open the Rafah border."

The report also says that macroeconomic developments in the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT) in 2007 were conditioned by the economic turmoil of 2006.

It notes that the assumption of power by Hamas in Gaza in mid-2007, the dismissal of the elected Palestinian Authority government and the formation of a caretaker government in the West Bank created further turbulence. This was followed by a period of policies and actions on the part of Israel and donors vis-à-vis Gaza and the West Bank that produced significant differences in economic performance between these regions.

Last year, the Israeli government arbitrarily blocked some 670 students in Gaza from pursuing higher education abroad, according to Human Rights Watch. Israel denied exit permits that the young men and women needed to leave Gaza for university programmes in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Germany, Britain, and the United States.

The students were among roughly 6,400 Gazans with foreign citizenship, permanent residency, work permits, student visas or university admissions abroad, who have been trapped in Gaza since June, when Hamas took control of the territory by force.

Israel has near total control of Gaza's borders -- land, air, and sea. Since June 2007, it has mostly allowed only individuals suffering extreme medical emergencies, some journalists, and employees of international organisations to leave.


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