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Informal network keeps Palestinians going
( 2003-10-13 15:04) (Agencies)

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 $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."

But with increasingly less to share ! an estimated 60 percent of Palestinians now live on less than $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 who are 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. In 2003 alone, the Gross Domestic Product is expected to drop 7 percent, the Palestinian Finance Ministry says.

The international community is sending about $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 $50 million a year before the uprising to about $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 $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 $30 to $100 from each family able to pay. A clan committee decides on spending ! maybe paying for furniture for a young couple, for university tuition or for the cost of surgery.

Some welfare funds are organized by neighborhood or area of origin. One Gaza City charity serves Palestinian refugees from what is now the Israeli town of Ashkelon.

Rawhi Mansour, who runs the Rimal neighborhood fund in Gaza City with contributions from 200 donors, said the need is overwhelming. "We don't have enough money and the number of people who need help is so big," he said.

Islamic charities, funded by foreign and local contributions, pay out millions of dollars a year to help the needy. Others draw unemployment payments or other stipends from the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority. The U.N. Relief and Works Agency ! created to help Palestinian refugees after Israel's creation in 1948 ! distributes emergency food rations to tens of thousands of people.

While Palestinians manage to hang on, some of the damage of the last three years may be irreversible. Many families have had to sell off assets to survive, including land and gold jewelry ! often at below-market prices.

Crime remains low, even though armed Palestinian police have not been permitted to patrol West Bank streets since Israel reoccupied most of the towns in April 2002.

In Gaza, with a population of 1.3 million, only about 600 criminals are locked up in the central jail ! in part because the clans of offenders and victims often settle quietly, a system tolerated by police.

In Nablus, petty theft is up only slightly, and there hasn't been a bank robbery in the city in decades.

"In Iraq, everything collapsed in one day," said Derhalli, the city's deputy mayor. "We have been without security forces for almost three years, and the situation is still close to normal."

With most Nablus schools overcrowded, four schools have been built this year with donations.

In the case of the young security guard Ahmed Abu Sair, his apartment was in a building blown up in an Aug. 8 army raid aimed at two bomb-makers wanted by Israel. The two wanted men and an Israeli soldier were killed.

Some 40 people lived in the building. Displaced tenants pooled their government compensation money of $16,400, construction workers charged only 40 percent of normal wages and other Gazans chipped in the rest, some as little as a dollar, to raise the shell of the building.

"We all know each other," explained Darwish Burghal, 32, from the neighborhood aid committee. "Any man who loses his house should be helped by his neighbors."

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