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In Focus: The Interwoven Roots of Systemic Food Insecurity in Palestine

By Elsa Barron

The recent escalation of violence between Israel and Gaza reached a tentative pause in early August, but the systemic shocks of conflict will continue to ripple through the Gaza Strip as local communities attempt to regain their footing. These shockwaves impact access to basic necessities such as food and are amplified by overlapping challenges such as ongoing trade blockades, governance challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic, and climate change impacts, leading to what the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) describes as a “chronic humanitarian crisis” that lies at the root of food insecurity for Palestinians.

A recent perspective by CCS’s Brigitte Hugh highlights the need for a systemic approach to food security in light of the global, interconnected impacts of climate change, conflict, and supply chain shocks. This follow-up analysis zooms in more closely to focus on food security in Palestine, which faces a challenging and entrenched nexus of risk. 

The Roots of a Systemic Crisis

Of the estimated 5.3 million people living in the West Bank and Gaza, 1.8 million are in need of food assistance. During the height of the pandemic, this figure was as high as 2 million amidst widespread economic losses. The conditions are harshest in Gaza, where over 64% of the population is food insecure. At a time of lowered resilience due to COVID-19, the Russian invasion of Ukraine created a food systems shock that disrupted the supply chains for critical agricultural products as well as the global wheat trade. These disruptions have had measurable impacts on the West Bank and Gaza, where the price of wheat flour rose 30 and 36% respectively between mid-February and May 2022. 

Increasing prices have led to growing concern and discontent in the Palestinian Territories. In the West Bank city of Hebron, crowds gathered in early June to protest rising food prices, urging the Palestinian Authority’s intervention to ensure the affordability of essential items. Eid celebrations in July were particularly challenging, with prices soaring for traditional foods ahead of the significant Muslim feast. 

However, today’s food security challenges began long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine and are due to a number of intersecting and systemic problems. In the Gaza Strip, any assurance of food security has been challenged by economic blockades imposed on the region for over a decade. The first blockade on Gaza had almost immediate economic and food security impacts. Just sixteen days after the blockade began in January 2006, A UN situation report described hundreds of tons of rotting produce unable to cross the border into Israel for export. These extended losses illustrated major economic blows to the agricultural sector in Gaza, weakening its resilience in future years. A later report from June described the dangerous depletion of food supplies between January and April 2006. It advised that prolonged open trade periods are essential for the food security of the local population. 

Yet the restrictions continued and by 2010, a statement from the UN Humanitarian coordinator declared Gaza’s formal economy collapsed due to ongoing blockades, leading to food insecurity for over 60% of local households. Within the Gaza Strip, security measures have restricted farmers and fishers from accessing key agricultural land and fishing zones, paralleling conditions in the occupied West Bank where many farmers have been separated from their agricultural land by military checkpoints. 

Poor governance and a lack of long-term planning have also impacted food security in the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority has failed to create a strategic food stockpile or grain storage mechanism that might boost its resilience to immediate shocks such as the war in Ukraine. These emergency mechanisms are especially critical given the current moment of economic fragility resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has already increased the overall rate of food insecurity in Palestine over the past two years. 

Climate change overlaps with each of these challenges, impacting agricultural productivity and further challenging food availability and affordability. Farmers in Gaza have expressed concerns about shifting rainfall patterns that have impacted regional crops such as olives and grapes. Farmers have traditionally anticipated the first rains in early October, yet they are now reporting the extension of the dry season for as long as two additional months. These shifts have affected the West Bank as well and made agriculture increasingly difficult in an already water-stressed region, and these disruptions are likely to continue into the future. Climate projections for the Mediterranean region predict increasing heatwaves and an overall drying trend; the most recent IPCC sixth assessment report predicts precipitation decreases of approximately 4% per 1°C global warming. 

Water-related climate impacts are particularly risky for Palestinian farmers who face additional water insecurity due to restricted water access and periodic cut-offs by the military, illustrating a network of interconnected challenges. Since 1967, water resources in Palestine, including the Jordan River and the Mountain and Coastal aquifers, have been under the control of the Israeli military. Palestinians are prohibited from constructing and managing water installations without military permits. Due to these restrictions, the agricultural sector in Palestine remains highly dependent on Israel for water resources; in many cases, it is impossible for Palestinian farmers to become self-sufficient. 

Further, the West Bank and Gaza rely on imports to meet 90% of their market needs, meaning that system shocks to agriculture and supply chains in other parts of the world have the potential to set off rippling threats in Palestine. In particular, Palestine relies heavily on Israeli imports, including food. According to the Israeli Ministry of Environmental Protection, increased temperature and decreased precipitation due to climate change are expected to reduce crop quality and quantity and decrease livestock productivity. More than a future problem, the impacts of climate change on Israeli agriculture are already underway. Last year, the Insurance Fund for Natural Risks in Agriculture reported $96.5 million in damages to Israeli agriculture due to global warming. Ultimately, Palestine’s reliance on imported products means that climate-induced agricultural disruptions in Israel will lead to even greater challenges to putting food on the table for many Palestinian families. 

Weeding Out the Roots of Food Insecurity

Given these systemic challenges that have created food insecurity in Gaza and the West Bank, the response requires a similarly systemic approach. 

The United States is currently responding to the immediate impacts of the food security crisis. During his visit to the West Bank in July, President Biden announced an additional $15 million dollars in humanitarian assistance to Palestinians through the World Food Program and other NGOs. These investments are critical to meeting the immediate needs of vulnerable populations. However, ensuring long-term food security requires investments and interventions that address the systemic roots of food system fragility in addition to humanitarian aid that counters its immediate effects. 

Changing the geopolitical environment that exacerbates food insecurity in Palestine is a key, overarching need. In parallel, one critical starting point at the local level is to improve climate education for farmers so that they can effectively plan for climate impacts and implement climate resilience strategies. The need for this kind of capacity development at the farmer level is acknowledged in Palestine’s National Adaptation Plan submitted to the UNFCCC in 2016. As climate-induced risks to Palestine’s food security continue to grow and interweave with other factors, such as restricted movement and trade, continued conflict, and supply chain disruptions, it is critical that communities on the ground are informed and empowered to take action to counter climate risks on their own terms. 

Ultimately, diverse populations around the world face a similar food crisis, yet unique local conditions and systems inform the roots of the problem. As security threats increasingly become defined by systemic challenges such as climate change, these crises need to be analyzed and addressed as a web of complex risks. Implementing a cross-sectoral analysis of the problem and building partnerships across government and civil society to develop interventions are the first steps to pulling up the crisis by its roots.

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