Tue, Oct 14, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Palestinians rely on their families

WORKING TOGETHER Informal support systems based on the family are keeping communities of Palestinians alive as Israel destroys their livelihoods


After his apartment was demolished by Israeli soldiers, Ahmed Abu Sair and his new bride found shelter in his father's home where eight people already shared two small rooms. His dad's bed was moved out onto the balcony.

However, Abu Sair, 29, a security guard who can't afford a new place on a US$125-a-month salary, won't remain in such cramped conditions much longer: his four-story apartment block is being rebuilt by neighbors who, though poor themselves, donated money and labor.

Such informal support systems -- neighborhood associations, clan welfare funds, mosque alms boxes -- have helped keep Palestinian society afloat, along with foreign aid, during three years of fighting. It works despite devastation that, according to a World Bank report in May, "would have torn the social fabric in many other societies."

At the root of Palestinian society is a tribal system that on one hand can stifle individuals' independence, discourage dissent, and greatly restrict women -- but on the other has also helped Palestinians manage their lives during hundreds of years of Turkish, British and Israeli rule.

"The one thing that never breaks down is kinship," Palestinian anthropologist Sharif Kanaana said. "You either live together or die together."

Less to share

But with increasingly less to share -- an estimated 60 percent of Palestinians now live on less than US$2 a day -- there is concern that even the ancient system could start unraveling.

Kanaana said that already there is growing hostility by some Palestinians toward those not relatives or neighbors -- considered, he said, "fair game" in an increasingly harsh competition over dwindling resources.

Since September 2000, the Palestinian economy suffered severe losses in trade and wages, largely because of Israeli travel bans meant to keep out suicide bombers and gunmen. This year alone, the GDP is expected to drop 7 percent, the Palestinian Finance Ministry says.

The international community is sending about US$1 billion a year to ease the worst hardships and help prop up the Palestinian Authority, which would otherwise cease to function.

In Nablus, the West Bank's largest city with 180,000 people, revenues dropped from US$50 million a year before the uprising to about US$30 million a year.

The municipality, which also runs four adjacent refugee camps, has stopped all infrastructure projects, cut back services, reduced salaries of employees by 30 percent and imposed a hiring freeze.

With unemployment at 60 percent, residents have run up US$45 million in unpaid utility bills since 2000.

"When we see people who cannot feed their kids, we cannot turn off their water and electricity," said the deputy mayor, Adnan Derhalli.

Yet there is no widespread destitution. Aid agencies note an increase in malnutrition -- one report says about 1 in 10 kids is not getting enough protein -- but there appears to be little stomach-turning hunger.

The informal safety net still catches most.

Those who have jobs share with even distant relatives who are unemployed -- often with no questions asked. It is not unusual for one breadwinner to support two or three dozen people.

Clans, the backbone of the tribal system, have their own welfare funds, with monthly contributions ranging from about US$30 to US$100 from each family able to pay.

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