The head of the U.N. agency aiding Palestinian refugees has launched an appeal for $200 million to supply basic food relief for next year.
The agency says it is the biggest ever food aid program launched for the Palestinians in a bid to stop the advance of malnutrition in the West Bank and Gaza strip.
The U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees says it plans to distribute food parcels to nearly 1.5 million Palestinians in the first part of next year.
Agency head Peter Hansen says he has been forced to increase the size and nutritional value of the parcels to include milk powder, chickpeas and iron-fortified flour because malnutrition is afflicting many Palestinians.
"Before the Intifada broke out it was less than nine percent in the area that was dependent on food aid, now we are talking of more than half the population depending on food aid," he said. "And we are talking numbers in malnutrition that compare with those of Zimbabwe and those of Congo."
Mr. Hansen says acute malnutrition is running at about 20 percent, while chronic malnutrition, which stunts mental and physical growth of children, is about 14 percent.
The U.S. Agency for International Development has found that four out of five Palestinian children have inadequate iron and zinc intake, which causes anemia and weakens the immune system.
The president of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, Younis Al-Khatib, told reporters in Geneva the recent hardships have forced it to extend its community services.
"We have expanded our relief operations to cope with the new needs," he said. "We have not been before involved, specifically before April, in food distribution at difficult times or even medicine distribution for hospitals."
Mr. Khatib says the Palestinian Red Crescent Society has also expanded the number of its emergency facilities from 15 to 32, increased its community volunteer network, and created a medical hotline. He says the American Red Cross has signed an agreement in Geneva with the Palestinian Red Crescent to bolster emergency and blood bank services.
The U.N. relief agency's Peter Hansen says the Palestinian economy is in a state of collapse with 70 percent of the population living on less than two dollars a day. He says donor countries only provided about half the money the agency asked for to feed hungry Palestinians.