Food security in the occupied Palestinian territory
by Jean-Luc Siblot, Genevieve Wills and Tareq Abu ElHaj, WFP November 2004

Levels of food insecurity in the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT) are high: over a million Palestinians are food-insecure, and another 975,000 are at risk of becoming so. This food insecurity is caused primarily by Israel’s closure policy and movement restrictions, which have resulted in massive increases in unemployment and underemployment (up to 30% in the West Bank and 40% in the Gaza Strip). The World Bank estimates that two out of five Palestinians are living below the poverty line; 16% are living in absolute poverty. The social safety nets and coping strategies employed by the Palestinian people are accordingly stretched to their limits. The most vulnerable are completely dependent on external aid.

WFP in the occupied Palestinian territory

WFP began operating in the OPT in 1991, with small-scale interventions targeting specific vulnerable groups, implemented through local Palestinian institutions. With the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1993, the Ministry of Social Affairs (MSA) called for longer-term WFP assistance for its social welfare programme, and the WFP OPT office was established in 1995. WFP’s activities were geared towards helping the MSA to develop good-quality social welfare schemes.

WFP launched its first emergency operation in 1996, following the introduction of closure measures by Israel in the early 1990s. The operation targeted 10,000 families in the Gaza Strip. Throughout the 1990s and up to 2002, WFP’s activities ranged from targeted emergency operations to relief, recovery and development.

In mid-2002, in response to a series of lethal suicide attacks on Israeli civilians, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) launched a large-scale military offensive in the West Bank. The closure regime was considerably tightened, effectively dissecting the OPT into a series of small pockets isolated from each other, and from employment and markets in Israel. Military incursions and closures rendered the Palestinian Authority less capable of addressing the pressing needs of the Palestinian population. In response, WFP launched an emergency operation targeting the most vulnerable non-refugee Palestinians (500,000 beneficiaries) with emergency food aid. This was renewed throughout 2003 and 2004.

WFP’s initial goals – to provide technical and financial assistance to the newly established Palestinian Authority – were thus replaced with the more pressing need to save the livelihoods of the Palestinian people. This was part of a broader assistance pattern: in 1999–2000, emergency aid comprised only 9.4% of donor contributions; by mid-2003, the figure was 27.6%, and contributions to development projects were one-third what they had been in 1999–2000. While the humanitarian community in the OPT agrees that Israel is obliged, under International Humanitarian Law, to provide humanitarian assistance to the affected Palestinian population, it is not likely to do so; with the humanitarian crisis entering its fourth year, and with no political solution in prospect, the international aid community is left with no other choice than to help cushion the effects of the crisis by providing humanitarian assistance.

WFP vulnerability analysis in the OPT

Between mid-2002 and 2004, WFP sought to increase the quality of its monitoring indicators by establishing the Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping/Monitoring and Evaluation (VAM/M&E) programme. The primary goal is to provide timely, accurate and relevant information about the nature of food insecurity and vulnerability among the impoverished Palestinian population. This information is explicitly intended to support WFP’s programme design.


The VAM/M&E programme in June 2004 confirmed that 37% of the Palestinian population in the OPT – 1.3m people – are food-insecure, and another 27%, or 975,000, are at risk. These figures represent a slight reduction on 2003, when 40% of the population was estimated as food-insecure, and 31% as vulnerable. Out of the total estimate of 1.3m food-insecure Palestinians, 560,000 are refugees and 750,000 non-refugees. Half of the governorates of the West Bank and Gaza have remained at the same levels of food insecurity, a quarter have become more food insecure and a quarter have improved. Indicators show that the prevalence of food insecurity diminishes in areas which have a wide variety of income sources.

The assessment also confirmed that there is a direct correlation between closures and restrictions and coping strategies. The households of daily wage earners in remote rural areas have frequently resorted to severe coping strategies. Members of this group are in general discouraged from seeking employment due to the risks, high costs and uncertainty involved in travelling from rural to urban areas. Daily wage earners who used to work in Israel have almost completely lost access to their traditional job market in Israel and the settlements, and have had to adapt to the low wages provided in the OPT.

The assessment also showed that there is a greater dependence on external aid in the Gaza Strip than in the West Bank. Humanitarian assistance constitutes the major part of the household food basket in Gaza, whereas in the West Bank employment and casual labour still constitute the main source of household income and food.

WFP emergency operations in the OPT in 2004–2005

On 1 September 2004, WFP launched an emergency operation targeting 480,000 beneficiaries with over 78,000 tons of basic food commodities, at a total cost of $42m. Whereas in 2002 the objectives of the emergency operation were to provide food assistance to a population whose access to basic commodities was jeopardised, the 2004–2005 operation aims to protect livelihoods, maintain the nutritional status of children and enhance the resilience of the targeted population. WFP has established two categories of non-refugee food-insecure households (food aid for the refugee population in the OPT is distributed by the UN Relief and Works Agency – UNRWA).

  • Chronic Poor. These are predominantly female-headed households, widows with a large number of children, orphans, the elderly and the chronically ill. These households lack an able-bodied male breadwinner, have limited or no access to income-earning opportunities, no productive or disposable assets, and a high level of dependency on external aid.
  • New Poor. This category includes farmers who have lost their agricultural produce due to confiscation, land-levelling or inaccessibility to markets, and daily wage earners who have lost jobs because of movement restrictions. Also in this category are vulnerable fishermen and Bedouin communities in the Gaza Strip.

WFP is providing assistance through Food-for-Work and Food-for-Training schemes, as well as through direct food aid.

Challenges facing WFP in the OPT

The measures imposed by the Israeli government’s defence apparatus have presented WFP with challenges at all levels.

Logistic challenges

The two major issues inhibiting humanitarian deliveries in the OPT are Israeli import regulations for West Bank/Gaza Strip-bound cargo, and the external and internal movement restrictions imposed by Israel. As the OPT has neither its own ports nor freight-handling airports, all goods destined for the OPT must go through Israeli, Jordanian or Egyptian ports. All goods bound for the West Bank/Gaza Strip are inspected. These inspections are both expensive ($58 per container checked) and time-consuming: cargo might be held up for extended periods at Israeli ports, incurring extra charges.

Transporting goods from Israeli ports to Gaza has been extremely difficult because of the tight blockade imposed by Israel since March 2004 following a lethal bombing in Ashdod, which used two empty containers coming from Gaza. Only one entry point, Karni Terminal, is authorised for deliveries into Gaza. Back-to-back transhipment from Israeli to Palestinian trucks is compulsory. UN trucks are not allowed into Gaza. The Israeli authorities have imposed a limit of five containers a day into the Strip, up to a maximum of 20 a week, with a fee of $67 per container. This does not satisfy WFP’s needs, and the agency has bought most of its wheat flour in Gaza. While this is currently a cost-competitive option, it is not a suitable alternative for WFP in the long term. Although deliveries from Israeli ports to the West Bank do not face the same restrictions as those bound for Gaza, the construction of the separation barrier means that similar problems are in prospect.

Despite these difficulties, WFP has managed to deliver more than 110,000 tons of food commodities over the last two years.

Security and staffing

WFP staff members work and live in a problematic and dangerous environment of violent demonstrations, crossfire, suicide bombings and aerial attacks. Restrictions on staff movement within the West Bank and Gaza Strip pose serious challenges. But restrictions on the movement of national staff to and from the Gaza Strip are of most concern. Since March 2004, only two WFP national staff members have been allowed to enter the Gaza Strip.


For a third consecutive year, WFP is implementing a large-scale food aid programme targeting approximately half a million destitute Palestinians. The lack of progress in the political sphere implies that the Palestinian population will find it increasingly difficult to cope with their impoverishment and, in the long term, to recover from it. This makes it virtually impossible for WFP to plan an exit strategy for its interventions in the OPT.

Jean Luc Sibot is Country Director for WFP in the occupied Palestinian territory. Genevieve Wills is Programme Officer for WFP in the OPT. Tareq Abu ElHaj is Programme Assistant, VAM, for WFP in the OPT.