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Palestinian malnutrition { July 26 2002 }

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July 26, 2002
In Palestinian Children, Signs of Increasing Malnutrition

JERUSALEM, Friday, July 26 A study under way for the United States Agency for International Development is finding that malnutrition among Palestinian children in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has increased substantially during the conflict with Israel, according to diplomats and government officials knowledgeable about the survey.

Preliminary results of the study, which is due to be finished and released in 10 days, are causing alarm within the Israeli government and the Bush administration, which has been pressuring Israel to alleviate Palestinian suffering.

One senior Israeli official said that Israel had learned through diplomatic channels of two forthcoming American studies detailing a rise in malnutrition.

"This is going to be disastrous for Israel," the official said. The Israeli government, already anticipating international criticism over conditions among Palestinians, has recently stepped up talks with Palestinian representatives to address the needs of those in the West Bank.

At the urging of the Bush administration, the Israelis have shelved a demand that the Americans supervise any transfer to Yasir Arafat's Palestinian Authority of Palestinian tax revenue that Israel has withheld during the conflict, Israeli officials said on Thursday. Shimon Peres, the Israeli foreign minister, said that Israel would begin transferring part of the money to the Palestinian Authority next week.

The shift came as Israeli officials engaged in a third day of damage control over the decision to drop a one-ton bomb into a densely populated neighborhood in Gaza City on Tuesday morning. The bomb killed its intended target, a leader of the militant group Hamas, but it also killed at least 14 other people, including 9 children.

As Israel braced for threatened Palestinian retaliation, Mr. Peres warned on Thursday that civilians might pay for the strike.

"I know that this is a serious escalation, and I am really afraid that innocent people on both sides will pay a high price," Mr. Peres told Israel's Army Radio.

Israeli ground forces have seized control of seven of eight major Palestinian cities and towns in the West Bank and have imposed 24-hour curfews that they lift only intermittently. Israel started the military operation after back-to-back suicide bombings a month ago in Jerusalem, and political and military officials have said they have no choice but to retain this grip on the West Bank until the threat of Palestinian violence ends.

Few Palestinians can leave their homes to work, and the costs and difficulties of transporting goods have become prohibitive, aid workers say.

The Israeli government is concerned that international criticism will grow as the crisis in the West Bank and Gaza deepens. It has recently made it somewhat easier for international aid groups to distribute food, diplomats here said.

The preliminary results of the Agency for International Development malnutrition survey have been widely discussed in diplomatic and aid donor circles here. Palestinian officials have also learned of the results, and some of the early findings have been posted on a Palestinian Web site,

American, Israeli and Palestinian officials, as well as European diplomats who were briefed about the survey, said they expected the final study to show a substantial increase in malnutrition.

The survey, conducted by Johns Hopkins University on contract with the agency, is of 1,000 households in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The preliminary results were based on about a third of that sample, one diplomat here said.

The preliminary results overstate the current findings of the survey, according to Western diplomats who have seen more recent conclusions. The preliminary findings indicated that 30 percent of children were suffering from chronic malnutrition, and another 21 percent from acute malnutrition, said diplomats who were briefed on the results.

As the researchers broadened their study to the bigger sample, those numbers declined. But the figures continue to show a substantial rise in malnutrition, according to people familiar with the survey.

Two years ago, a survey done for the same agency that was described by diplomats as somewhat less rigorous found that 7 percent of Palestinian children were chronically malnourished and 2.5 percent were acutely malnourished.

Officials of the Agency for International Development declined to discuss the findings. "We can't substantiate any numbers until August 5," said Gina Benevento, the press officer for the agency in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, referring to the study's scheduled release date.

The Israeli military operation has presented the government with a dilemma, Israeli officials said. While it wants to remain at least for now in the West Bank, the government does not want to shoulder the costly burden of supplying services to the Palestinians, as it did before the Oslo agreement created limited Palestinian self-rule. For Israel to supply food, one Israeli official said, would be to start down that road.

"We've been there," the official said. "So the dilemma here is between the security and need."

In all, Israel has withheld about $600 million in Palestinian tax revenue during the 22-month conflict, arguing that the money might be used to finance terrorism. Under the terms of the Oslo peace accords, Israel is supposed to transfer the money, amassed from customs duties, value-added taxes, and other fees, to the Palestinian Authority.

Israeli officials said they intend to hand over tax revenues worth about $42.3 million. A first payment of about $14.8 million is likely to be made next week, they said.

In addition, Israeli officials said that they would use about $29.6 million of the Palestinian tax revenue to cover Palestinian debts to Israel for electricity, water, medical care and other services.

Israeli officials said that while the Bush administration is pressing them to ease the plight of average Palestinians, it is making no demands for a return to political negotiations. In a speech a month ago, President Bush endorsed the condition of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel that Mr. Arafat be replaced as Palestinian leader before substantive negotiations resume.

Early today Israeli troops and armored vehicles moved into Gaza, according to residents, who said the soldiers were firing machine guns. The Israeli Army had no comment.

On Thursday morning, an Israeli settler was shot and killed while driving through the West Bank, in an attack claimed by two militant groups. A rescue worker said that the gunmen continued firing at rescue crews as they arrived at the scene. The victim was identified as Rabbi Elimelech Shapira, a 43-year-old father of eight. Another person was seriously injured in the attack.

Separately, an Israeli policeman, also a West Bank settler, was arrested on suspicion of selling ammunition to Palestinians, bringing to seven the number of Israelis detained in the case.

The Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, accused Mr. Sharon on Thursday of trying to sabotage peace efforts by approving the airstrike Tuesday.

"It shows the Israeli prime minister was probably not happy with these initiatives and efforts and said, `I will go ahead with this strike to sabotage these efforts,' " Mr. Mubarak told reporters in Paris.

Palestinian officials and European diplomats say that a Palestinian cease-fire was in the works when Israel sent an American-made F-16 fighter over Gaza City to kill the militant leader. Israeli officials said that they knew of negotiations among Palestinians toward a cease-fire, but had dismissed them as the hopeless work of well-meaning people with no influence over terrorist groups.

There were clashing accounts in the Israeli news media over who was at fault for what the government has described as faulty intelligence that buildings around the blast site were not inhabited. Eleven of the 15 people killed in the bombing were in neighboring buildings. More than 140 people were injured, Palestinian officials said.

Israeli officials continued to add details to the threat to Israelis they said was posed by Sheik Salah Shehada, the air raid's target and a founder of the paramilitary wing of Hamas.

"Shehada was busy planning a mega-attack involving a truck with hundreds of kilograms of explosives, something that would have jolted the Israeli people, causing hundreds of deaths," said Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, the Israeli defense minister. On Tuesday, after the bombing, a senior military official said that Mr. Shehada was preparing to blow up a bridge used by settlers in Gaza, to dispatch a boat filled with explosives to a bathing beach, to send a bomber to a mall, and to order shooting attacks at Israeli settlements.

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