Food Insecurity in Palestine and the Russia-Ukraine War: The Worst Is Yet to Come

The potential impact of a drop in the supply of grain to global markets due to the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war has increased fears about food insecurity around the world. Many countries in the Middle East have long depended on Russia and Ukraine for a large portion of their food imports, and today are puzzling over how to make up deficits that may result from the conflagration. Countries such as Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Yemen, Libya, and Tunisia expect to experience substantial food insecurity as long as the war continues. Palestine, which is already suffering from prolonged Israeli occupation and restrictions that limit its economic development, will certainly feel its fair share of negative impact from the war. However, a coordinated effort in the West Bank and Gaza could offer some relief from both this and future threats to food security in Palestine.

Food Security and International Crisis

The global economy had barely managed to recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic when the Russian war arrived in Ukraine, striking another blow to global economic growth. The war has caused devastating consequences for global food security, making a return to normal appear increasingly far off, especially for countries whose food security relies heavily on imports.

Food security is growing increasingly important due to heightened awareness of the concept, and of its relation to economic, environmental, and health development issues.

Food security is growing increasingly important due to heightened awareness of the concept, and of its relation to economic, environmental, and health development issues. The World Food Summit of 1996 delivered a comprehensive definition of food security: “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” This concept carries four main dimensions: the availability of sufficient quantities of food of adequate quality, access to food, effective utilization of food, and sustainability.

The concept of food security is linked to a range of terms, including “self-sufficiency,” which refers to nations’ ability to supply goods to meet the level of demand. However, countries that are incapable of self-sufficiency turn to imports to secure their food via global supply chains, many of which were dramatically shaken by the Russia-Ukraine war. Common food staples were especially affected, since over the past three years the two countries combined produced 30 percent of global wheat exports and 20 percent of corn exports. One substantial result of the war has been a 19.7 percent increase in the price of wheat and a 19.1 percent rise in the price of corn.

Following these changes, several nations have adopted emergency economic policies. Some have worked to secure a larger food reserve by constructing new silos and planting staples like wheat and corn at the expense of other crops, while others, including India, Hungary, Indonesia, and Argentina, have turned to protectionist policies, banning wheat exports and placing other barriers on trade. Meanwhile, on May 14, 2022, the Group of Seven approved mechanisms for collaboration in securing food supply chains.

Palestine and the Global Food Crisis

The agricultural sector in Palestine has long been affected by several struggles and obstacles that directly and significantly affect food security, and that are the result of economic conditions imposed by Israel, as well as the geographical and political gap between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. These challenges have been compounded by the current global food crisis.

The combined area of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is 6,023 km2, with the West Bank representing 94 percent of the total. Of this combined total area, 1,200 km2 is used for agriculture, 90 percent of which is in the West Bank.

The West Bank: According to the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture, Palestinian farmers face several difficult working conditions. Sixty-three percent of the West Bank’s agricultural lands are located in Area C, which is subject to full Israeli control, and is governed by stipulations that do not allow permanent Palestinian investment and agricultural development.

Israeli control over water resources has further restricted the development of the Palestinian agricultural sector.

Israeli control over water resources has further restricted the development of the Palestinian agricultural sector, since Israel uses some 85 percent of groundwater from the Western Aquifer Basin, leaving Palestinians just 15 percent to use for their domestic and agricultural needs. This is in violation of the 1993 Oslo Accords, and is done without the consent of the Israeli–Palestinian Joint Water Committee, which is meant to operate in accordance with the agreement on organizing and managing joint water issues.

The Gaza Strip: Challenges in Gaza are increasing in the face of an ongoing blockade and continuous Israeli assaults. According to evaluations made by the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture, losses in the agricultural sector surpassed $200 million during the last Israeli attack in May 2021. Osama Nofal, Director General of Studies at the Ministry of Economy in the Gaza Strip, highlighted the added burden on consumers of high prices as a consequence of the Ukraine war, saying “unfortunately, the things in Gaza got out of control as a result of the consequences of the Russia-Ukraine conflict that resulted in increasing prices in most of the goods and food commodities around the world.”

Moreover, the fragility of the Palestinian economy has made it especially vulnerable to global shifts, and Palestinian flour mills were significantly harmed by the increase in global food prices due to the Russia-Ukraine war. In addition to suffering through global price fluctuations, Palestinian mills are subject to policies set by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, since most of Gaza’s mills import wheat from Israel.

A lack of food diversity causes additional problems. According to a poll conducted by the World Food Program (WFP) in March 2022, 1.8 million people in Palestine currently suffer from food insecurity, with 50 percent of them also lacking access to essential vitamins and minerals. The problem of food security in Palestine has therefore intensified since the start of the Ukrainian war. In light of the war’s progression, as well as the persistence of present official policies in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, it seems likely that the situation will worsen.

The problem of food security in Palestine has intensified since the start of the Ukrainian war and it seems likely that the situation will worsen.

During a workshop held in Gaza on March 24, 2022, Osama Nofal stated that the Ministry of Economy had issued a decision that exempted traders from import tariffs for wheat and flour at any border, adding that, “At the outset of the crisis, a meeting was held with the top traders of basic commodities in the Gaza Strip, and emphasis was placed on working to provide said commodities.” Later, the Ministry of Economy announced its decision not to allow price increases without its consent.”

Commenting on the war in Ukraine and its impact on supplies of flour, General Manager of Al Salam Flour Mills in Gaza, Abdel-Dayem Awwad, remarked, “The main reason [for higher prices] is the Russian-Ukraine war. We had stores for two to three months, but when they ran out we were obliged to buy wheat at new prices, and it was very high.” However, constructing silos and stocking wheat would require a coordinated policy between the government and the private sector.

Food Security Challenges in Palestine

Policies of the Israeli Occupation: The Israeli occupation of the West Bank presents a number of challenges to Palestinian food security, including Palestinians’ inability to control land and water resources, and Israel’s control of Palestinian borders, which together impose economic dependence on Israel and prevent the free import and export of goods. All of these policies violate the responsibility that an occupying power bears for ensuring basic needs in an occupied territory, as laid out in Articles 68 and 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

In addition, the continuation of the conflict with no prospect for a political solution, coupled with recession, trade restrictions, difficulty accessing resources, and the rise in unemployment and poverty rates, constitutes a serious challenge to achieving the goals of ending hunger, attaining food security, and improving nutrition in Palestine, goals that were laid out in the March 2022 WFP report.

Deficiencies in the Palestinian Economy: The Palestinian economy is largely a service economy, with statistics showing that the number of jobs in agriculture, fishing, and forestry is the lowest among the country’s economic sectors. In 2020, 15.2 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza worked in agriculture, while 62 percent worked in the services sector, which indicates that government emphasis is directed toward the service sector more than agriculture.

The Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture has stated that underfunding in the agricultural sector is one of the factors that stood in the way of the country achieving the objectives specified in its National Agricultural Sector Strategy (2017-2022). Meanwhile, discrepant governmental policies in the West Bank and Gaza further exacerbate the situation. For example, even though the Palestinian government has issued a VAT exemption for wheat, the exemption only applies to mills in the West Bank, and not those in Gaza.

Poor Infrastructure: Palestinian society relies heavily on wheat imports, which meet roughly 95 percent of domestic demand. This is in large part because it lacks both adequate infrastructure for storing grain and a clear general policy for mills in the West Bank and Gaza. Devising such a policy would strengthen the resilience of Palestinian society and limit the effects of global price volatility, since, according to the FAO, current wheat storage capacity is only sufficient to cover three months.

The Crisis of Funding International Organizations: International organizations are currently suffering from a funding crisis. This is especially the case for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, on whose food assistance one third of all Gaza residents depend. So far, the agency has been able to keep assistance flowing, but it is currently calling for additional funds from donor states in order to cover rising prices.

The Palestinian National Authority is suffering from a financial crisis that constitutes a challenge to its ability to provide basic commodities.

The Palestinian National Authority is also suffering from a financial crisis that constitutes a challenge to its ability to provide basic commodities, which will likely affect the programs and aid it provides for the poorest and most vulnerable segments of Palestinian society. Because of the Ukrainian crisis, funds provided for the authority or other international organizations may end up getting reallocated to Ukraine, further exasperating the Palestinians’ situation.

Alternatives and Recommendations

Predicting the economic and financial implications of the Russia-Ukraine war is a challenging process. Already, countries around the world have instituted emergency procedures and precautions aimed at maintaining food security. But developing countries like Palestine that are more reliant on imports need even more comprehensive policies that guarantee a full flow of food to markets instead of policies full of discrepancies, such as those between Gaza and the West Bank. It is necessary to more broadly alter Palestinian policies, to adopt precautionary measures, to institute humanitarian aid programs, and to establish plans for socioeconomic programs and regulations before the food security crisis in Palestine deepens. This can be achieved through the following:

1) Forming a Crisis Unit: Considering the division between the West Bank and Gaza, as well as deteriorating economic conditions, national interests must be prioritized both by setting up joint national policies that will overcome division in collaboration with civil society, and by instituting policies capable of confronting the next crisis. This must include:

  • Securing the needs of Palestinian society, which will entail genuine collaboration between the public and private sectors, the construction of silos for grain storage, and price-monitoring and adjustment.
  • Supporting traders and the private sector through the reduction of taxes and the provision of logistics services.
  • Supporting consumers by providing protection for all basic commodities, especially from inflated prices and monopolies.

2) Government Policies: The Palestinian government must establish agricultural policies that aim at reducing the gap between the importation of commodities and reliance on domestic production, a path that will ultimately lead to self-sufficiency. Such policies must be based on:

  • Supporting the agricultural sector by providing incentives to farmers for growing wheat and instituting programs to compensate them for their losses.
  • Bolstering the commercial sector and strengthening international trade agreements so that they serve Palestinian interests.

Doubts remain regarding food security in Palestine, which has only gotten worse since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war. Regardless, it is clear that decision makers in the West Bank and Gaza must combine their efforts in order to forestall what could amount to disastrous consequences for Palestinian food security. Furthermore, the United Nations and its agencies must perform their ethical duties in this matter, and Israel as an occupying power must cooperate by providing economic means to help Palestinians secure their food requirements and achieve security and stability.

Feature image credit: Wikimedia/Ralf Lotys