Palestinian Activist: Gaza’s real problem is too much high quality food

Palestinian Activist: Gaza's real problem is too much high quality food
Gaza City 2011 (REUTERS/Mohammed Salem)

Gaza is under siege and Gazans are struggling to get in basic items to feed their families, right? You might think so if you follow most of the coverage and comment on the Gaza situation, but it is actually far from the reality. Don’t take my word for it – read the Al-Monitor article by Rana Baker, who lives and studies in Gaza and writes for the vehemently and violently anti-Israel website Electronic Intifada:

“Walking into a supermarket in Gaza might come as a great surprise for a person visiting the coastal enclave for the first time. At first glance, the visitor would be amazed by the level to which the shelves are packed with all kinds of products, ranging from basic food supplies to expensive chocolates and Coca-Cola. A father pushing a heaped stroller, or a toddler restlessly pulling her mother’s hand and pointing at a lollipop, are scenes one is likely to encounter.”

But of course, someone like Baker is not writing to praise Israel for making sure Palestinians have plenty of basic and even luxury goods. Even while admitting that Gaza’s supermarkets are overflowing, she has a new line of attack in mind – Israel is “forcing” Gaza Palestinians to purchase Israeli products, and thus exploiting Gazans on behalf of Israeli capitalism under the guise of providing aid.

“The Israeli government brags about the truckloads it allows into the Strip through the Karem Abu Salem commercial crossing point, but it always forgets, deliberately or not, to mention that the products that enter the Strip through this very crossing are mostly marked with 729, the made-in-Israel barcode.”

Baker goes on:

“Life under siege does not mean that the population in question is necessarily starving. However, it necessarily means that this population constitutes a huge consumer market to its jailer – Israel in this case.”

And Baker takes her conspiracy theory to some contradictory places. Apparently, Israeli products are both too high quality for Palestinians to compete with, yet they cost far more than Palestinian products, thus gouging Palestinian consumers. She says:

“The problem associated with consuming the goods of the occupying authority has two faces at least. Israeli products are high-priced, and, with few alternatives in place, Palestinians are forced to pay more for products that could be much cheaper if produced locally… Due to the higher quality of Israel’s exports to Gaza, combined with restrictions on domestic production, local businesses can hardly compete and rapidly lose market share to their Israeli counterparts.”

One does not need a degree in economics to know that if the Israeli products are so much more expensive, and could be produced more cheaply locally, then there is no reason local producers should not be rapidly “losing market share” even if the Israeli goods are better quality. This is especially true of a poor area like Gaza, where, as Baker claims, “38.8% of Gazan people cannot afford the prices charged for the goods.” If locals produced goods more cheaply, surely these poor Gazans have no choice but to buy them, regardless of the quality?

So there you have it. Israel’s great crime against the Gazans is giving them ample amounts of high-quality goods to buy – if they so choose. According to Baker, this amounts to Israeli control “over what they eat and how they furnish their house” and forcing Palestinians “to fund the illegal settlements in the West Bank and deadly assaults such as that waged against Gaza in November.”

Baker even criticises investment in Gaza by Palestinian multi-millionaire Munib al-Masri, implying that the fact that he is affiliated with the Palestinian Authority, and the hotels and resorts he has established are largely used by the upper middle-class, means that they were established “to counter accusations of collective punishment” against Israel.

What makes Baker’s accusations even more absurd is that it is so patently not true that the Israeli goods are the only ones available to Gazans. As has been documented in dozens of international news stories, before Israel reduced its restrictions on the range of goods allowed into Gaza in 2010, consumer goods were flowing into Gaza in huge quantities through smuggling tunnels along the border with Egypt. Those tunnels are still there, thought the quantities of ordinary consumer goods being smuggled have reportedly been much reduced. If Gazans want non-Israeli goods they can get them – the tunnels would simply ramp up activity again. The fact that they are buying Israeli goods means they prefer them.

Finally, there is the elephant in the room that is always ignored every time it is claimed Israel has placed Gaza under “siege” – the Egyptian border.

It is not Israel that prevents Gazans from importing whatever they want to their heart’s content, legally and aboveboard, over that border, but the Egyptian government under President Mohammed Morsi, who is hardly known for his warm sympathy for Jews and Israel.

Of course, Baker doesn’t argue that UN and other international community aid programs are similarly oppressing the Palestinians by providing them with needed goods – that honour is reserved exclusively for Israel. And naturally, there is no mention of the unilateral withdrawal of Israel from Gaza in 2005, or of the reason for the Israeli restrictions on Gaza – namely the thousands of rockets that have been fired from into Israel since then.

At base, Baker is clearly making the point that it is Israel’s existence that is illegitimate, and therefore any dealing with it is by nature corrupting. The aid it provides is tarnished only by its provenance.

Baker’s article is based in a worldview that says in this zero sum game, any simple connection with Israel, Israelis or even an Israeli barcode on a product amounts to a conspiracy to harm Palestinians. This is the kind of extreme ideology that, to the detriment of the people it claims to support, makes genuine peace so difficult.

Note: Despite the admissions by people like Baker, and widespread pictures of normalcy and abundant food and basic goods in Gaza, the legend of starving Gazans lives on. Noted Middle East scholar Martin Kramer recently noted a claim made by academic and activist Juan Cole making the argument that “About 10% of children in Gaza under 5 have had their growth stunted by malnutrition”. This is not an uncommon point made by BDS activists with respect to Gaza.

Yet as Kramer documents, using the UNICEF report ‘Tabling Progress on Child and Maternal Nutrition’, that 10% figure is actually among the lowest anywhere in the Arab Middle East.

Based on the rates of stunted growth in children, the Palestinian Territories are ranked 92nd out of 136 nations – well behind Afghanistan (59%), Egypt (29%), Iraq (26%), Syria (28%) and Saudi Arabia (20%) some of which are far more prosperous nations. In other words, what these figures actually shows is that Gaza’s children, far from suffering starvation because of an Israel “siege”, are in fact better fed that the vast majority of children across the Middle East.

 – Talia Katz