Senior Palestinian officials met in Washington Friday with the deputy director of the U.S. Agency for International Development to appeal for greater assistance to Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Palestinian leaders complain their people are going hungry because of Israel's closure of the occupied territories and the curfew imposed on most Palestinian towns and villages. USAID recently sponsored a study that showed what has been termed a disturbing trend in malnutrition and anemia among children and women living in the Palestinian areas.

The survey shows a marked increase in malnutrition among Palestinian children over the past two years, since the current Palestinian uprising, or Intifada, began. Results show that nearly one-third of Palestinian children under the age of five suffer from malnutrition. The survey also shows that the rate of malnutrition is much higher in the Gaza Strip than in the West Bank.

Gregg Greenough of Johns Hopkins University in the U.S. city of Baltimore, a specialist in public health issues in conflict areas, helped coordinate the USAID-funded study. "The rates of moderate and severe acute malnutrition broke down quite differently in the West Bank and Gaza Strip," he said. "In the Gaza Strip, it was 13.3 percent, and the West Bank 4.3 percent. We also found rates of chronic malnutrition in the Gaza Strip was much higher at 17.5 percent, [with] the West Bank at 7.9 percent. In anemia, we found that around 20 percent of Palestinian children are anemic."

Dr. Greenough said once malnutrition levels reach 10 percent, they are considered an emergency and warrant immediate intervention.

The survey was a random sampling of 1,000 households, and looked at children five years and under and women of childbearing age. The survey also found a high rate of anemia among Palestinian women.

Dr. Greenough said the main reason for the findings is not the lack of available food, but rather overall deteriorating economic conditions in the Palestinian territories and the curb on the free movement of people and goods. "One of the questions we ask is, 'In the last two weeks, have you fed your family less food for more than a day?' And 56 percent said yes," he said. "And when you ask them why, two-thirds of them say it's because of lack of money, and one-third say it's because of curfews and closures that have been imposed."

Since the Intifada began almost two years ago, economic conditions in Palestinian areas have deteriorated drastically. Israeli troops, citing security reasons, have closed off most large population centers and imposed strict curfews. Security concerns have also led Israeli authorities to revoke permits for Palestinians to come to work in Israel.

Mustafa Barghouti, head of the Palestinian Committee for Health and Relief Services, said Israeli policies are clearly to blame for the rise in malnutrition. "These findings prove our point, that there is a humanitarian crisis in Palestine caused by the Israeli occupation and by Israeli military measures of closure, of obstruction of movement, of obstruction of the economy, of obstruction of medical services," he said. "This has led to pushing more than 75 percent of the population below the poverty line, and 65 percent of the labor force is unemployed."

Yaakov Adler, medical advisor to the Israeli military coordinator for the Palestinian territories, said there is no doubt that the Palestinian economy has been hurt by the violence; but he said Palestinians are largely to blame. "Well, many of the people living in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank used to work in Israel before the Intifada started. They are not working today because of the security considerations," he said. "It is not a decision by us that we don't want them as workers. The only reason for closing these areas is that we were attacked by many of these people coming to work in Israel."

Dr. Adler does not dispute the findings of the USAID study, but he said it is important to note that similar studies done in years past have shown that malnutrition among Palestinian children has been an ongoing problem. He also said the percentages of malnutrition in the West Bank fall within acceptable ranges and should not necessarily cause alarm.

Dr. Greenough disagrees. He said some of the figures do indicate an emergency situation that must be dealt with now. He also said it is vital to tackle the problem of acute or short-term malnutrition, which is easily reversible, and thus keep it from becoming chronic malnutrition, which has long lasting, damaging effects on a child's growth and development.

Some Israeli officials have expressed shock about the most recent findings, and there has been talk that curfews and blockades of Palestinian towns and villages could be eased to alleviate the suffering of the civilian population.