Palestinians Feel Economic Pain From the War in Ukraine

A food crisis looms as the price of wheat and other staples surges.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a reporter at Foreign Policy.
A Palestinian loads a cart with food.
A Palestinian loads a cart with food.
A Palestinian loads a cart with food provided by the United Nations World Food Program and its agency for Palestinian refugees in Gaza on May 15, 2019. MOHAMMED ABED/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threatens to plunge the Palestinian territories into a food crisis, as the war disrupts key exports and drives up the price of staples like wheat and seed oil, according to aid agencies.

The West Bank and Gaza import more than 90 percent of their wheat supply—nearly a third of which comes from Ukraine. These territories, run by Palestinian governing bodies but occupied by Israel, were already confronting food insecurity and humanitarian challenges before the war. 

Now, they face a more severe crisis as imports stall and humanitarian assistance is redirected toward the war. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threatens to plunge the Palestinian territories into a food crisis, as the war disrupts key exports and drives up the price of staples like wheat and seed oil, according to aid agencies.

The West Bank and Gaza import more than 90 percent of their wheat supply—nearly a third of which comes from Ukraine. These territories, run by Palestinian governing bodies but occupied by Israel, were already confronting food insecurity and humanitarian challenges before the war. 

Now, they face a more severe crisis as imports stall and humanitarian assistance is redirected toward the war. 

“In Gaza, the need for humanitarian relief, reconstruction, and recovery remains acute,” said Richard Mills Jr., the deputy U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, at a U.N. Security Council meeting on Monday. 

“Due to President Putin’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine, food insecurity could worsen even further in the coming weeks, both in Gaza and the West Bank, as prices of food, fuel, and other commodities rise,” he added.

Wheat flour prices have surged by 18 percent in the West Bank and 24 percent in Gaza compared to a year ago, a drastic increase that has put new financial strains on already vulnerable Palestinians. And it’s not just wheat: Lentil costs have increased by 17 percent while both corn oil and table salt prices have risen by more than 26 percent. The costs of key agricultural inputs have also skyrocketed, with animal feed now 60 percent more expensive in the West Bank. 

The looming crisis in the Palestinian territories is just one example of how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has upended the global food supply chain. Ukraine and Russia are major exporters of food staples around the world, including to developing countries teetering on the precipice of food insecurity even before the war. 

Cash-strapped Lebanon, already reeling from an economic crisis, imports some 80 percent of its wheat from Ukraine and is grappling with the highest food prices in the Middle East and North Africa region. In Africa, the price of wheat across the continent has gone up 62 percent, according to the African Development Bank. In Zimbabwe alone, bread prices have spiked 100 percent

“We’re basically looking at a very grim food security outlook,” said Irene Kruizinga at the Oxfam humanitarian organization.

The West Bank and Gaza are particularly vulnerable to supply chain shocks and spikes in food prices, given the dire humanitarian situation there and Israel’s restrictions on trade and travel in the Gaza Strip. The territory is run by the Islamic group Hamas, which has fought several wars against Israel since it took control of Gaza in 2007. 

“The blockade of Gaza allows both Israel and the international community and the U.S. to wall off, both literally and mentally, the people who live in Gaza,” said Noah Gottschalk of Oxfam. It “allows them to be compartmentalized and not considered or focused on.”

An Israeli Embassy spokesperson rejected these criticisms, noting that 12,000 Palestinian workers commute daily into Israel and hundreds of trucks full of food go from Israel into Gaza every day. 

More than 2 million Palestinians live in Gaza, making it one of the most densely populated territories in the world.

“There are no restrictions on food or any food supplies entering Gaza,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “The solution to improve the situation in Gaza is to free Gaza from Hamas.” 

Israel has maintained the blockade on Gaza for about 15 years. In the past, the policy has included some limits on food supplies to Gaza

Even before the war, an estimated one-third of Palestinians suffered from food insecurity. For a majority of that group, the insecurity can be defined as acute. The outlook is particularly bad in Gaza, where more than 80 percent of the people rely on humanitarian assistance and an estimated 96 percent of freshwater is undrinkable

“This is not happening in a vacuum,” said Samer AbdelJaber, the World Food Program’s country director and representative in Palestine. “We’re dealing in Palestine with the protracted conflict, economic stagnation, and restricted trade and access to resources.”

Across the Palestinian territories, nearly 1 million children are in need of humanitarian aida number that could rise as the price of key food staples continues to spike. Lucia Elmi, the UNICEF special representative in the region, told Foreign Policy that the war’s pressures could have an especially harmful impact on childhood outcomes. 

“This comes on top of an already existing vulnerability, an existing humanitarian crisis,” she said. “It is a crisis on top of other crises, and children are always the ones that are most vulnerable.” 

Aid agencies are now scrambling to secure alternative food supplies, though many say their humanitarian operations have been severely hampered by the war in Ukraine. The World Food Program (WFP), for instance, purchases around half of its grain provisions from Ukraine. As this supply is disrupted and food prices spiral, the WFP has warned that it will need to slash rations to refugees and plead for greater funding.

The war in Ukraine “will have global context impact beyond anything we’ve seen since World War II,” David Beasley, the World Food Program’s executive director, told the U.N. Security Council in March. Given the WFP’s reliance on Ukrainian grain, he said, “you can only assume the devastation that this is going to have on our operations alone.”

Aid agencies in the Palestinian territories say they are struggling to continue their operations amid these supply disruptions and increasingly limited funding. Some agencies told Foreign Policy that they feared international aid could dry up or be diverted toward the war in Ukraine, further impeding their ability to provide a humanitarian lifeline in the coming months. 

Several donors have “already conveyed the message that we should not expect the same level of funding as previous years,” AbdelJaber said. “This is worrying for us, especially since there was already a trend of donor fatigue surrounding aid to Palestine.”

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) warned that this loss of funding could fuel political instability.

“Should we run out of funding, not being able to provide food, people go hungry—and if people go hungry, they’re not sitting around waiting for the food to arrive,” said Leni Stenseth, deputy commissioner-general of the UNRWA. “They’re taking out to the streets and demanding that they receive the food they need to survive.” 

On Wednesday, the Biden administration announced that it would be directing $670 million toward emergency food aid operations in six countries—Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, and Yemen—that have been pushed further into food insecurity as a result of the war in Ukraine. The Palestinian territories as well as some countries in the Middle East facing food price shocks were not on the list, though Washington remains a top international funder of food aid programs in the region. 

“Millions of Palestinians rely on humanitarian assistance,” AbdelJaber said. “Without it, the consequences would be devastating.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Christina Lu is a reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @christinafei

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