Palestinian receive food aid 248.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Decades of violence and recent border closures in the Palestinian territories have resulted in major health problems including malnutrition, stunted growth in children and high infant mortality rates, international experts say.
The research, published Thursday in a special issue of the medical journal The Lancet, was accompanied by an editorial calling for a Middle East peace agreement as a means to improve the health of the Palestinians.
"The health situation in the occupied Palestinian territory shows the urgency of finding a political solution," former US president Jimmy Carter wrote in the editorial.
In an introduction, Lancet editor Richard Horton said "health offers a new way into a new dialogue for peace and justice."
Government spokesman Mark Regev called the Lancet report one-sided. "This is propaganda in the guise of a medical report," he said.
Experts said malnutrition was on the rise in the Gaza Strip, leading to an increase in the rate of stunted growth in children from about eight percent in 1996 to 13% in 2006. In some parts of Gaza, malnutrition was so severe that nearly 30 of children have stunted growth.
In the five papers, researchers found serious disparities between the health of Palestinians and other people in the Middle East.
In Gaza, experts estimated there were about 27 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2006. In contrast, there were about four deaths per 1,000 live births in Israel, a figure comparable to most Western countries.
The research also showed that after decades of improvement, infant mortality rates in Gaza and the West Bank began to plateau in the 1990s. Between 1990 and 2005, the territories had the smallest reduction in death rates in children under 5, a 2% drop.
By comparison, death rates in children under 5 in Egypt dropped by 70%, and by nearly 50% in Iraq.
Regev said Israel was not responsible for the death rates in Gaza.
"How much of this is because of Hamas's regime?" he asked. "Instead of investing in public health, they've invested in violence and conflict."
Hamas seized control of Gaza in June, 2007, from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who now governs the West Bank. Israel closed Gaza's borders after the Hamas takeover, letting in limited amounts of aid and other goods.
Regev said Israel's influence in the West Bank and Gaza had been beneficial, and that many Palestinians had been treated in Israeli hospitals.
He added that the report also noted the rise of chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer, typically seen in more affluent populations. That, Regev said, showed the health of Palestinians was improving.
Experts working in the region said they were not surprised by The Lancet's findings.
Cecile Barbou of Medecins Sans Frontieres, medical coordinator for the Palestinian territories, said the three-week Israeli offensive against Hamas that ended January 18 worsened stress levels in Palestinians. She cited data showing that 1,000 more women than usual delivered babies in January, and attributed that to women being stressed by the fighting and delivering prematurely.
Dr. Guido Sabatinelli, director of health for the UN's Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, was not optimistic about the prospects for peace. "There have been increased obstacles to aid, and Palestinians are completely dependent on humanitarian aid," he said.
"This is a population that is very desperate, and it is time for the international community to act," Sabatinelli said. "When I travel there, I see no hope in the people's eyes."