Since its creation in 1948, Israel has used food and nutrition as a means to entrench its military and territorial occupation of Palestine. While all eyes are turned today to the savage eradication of children and entire families in Gaza through operation “Pillar of Cloud”, Israel pursues its long-term goal of decimating the means of food production, livelihoods and the ability of those in Gaza to make economic and political decisions about what they grow and what they eat.
Gaza and the rest of Occupied Palestine is being restructured as an entity where malnutrition is endemic, access to food is denied and people are forced to live under the constant fear of not having enough to eat.
In the last eight days, the food and farming sector in Gaza has been severely maimed, worsening the condition of an agricultural sector impaired by six years of Israeli imposed siege, military campaigns and decades of occupation.
In the first five days of the assault, the Ministry of Agriculture in Gaza estimated losses to the agriculture and fishing sectors to be above US $50 million.
According to our colleague Mohammad El Bakri, who is with the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, and other agricultural specialists in Gaza, farmers are in the midst of the crucial olive harvest and olive oil production season and the destruction is a disastrous blow for food and economic security in Gaza.
The targeting of tunnels by Israeli airstrikes has restricted the flow of food and fuel into Gaza. Few shops remain open and the UN has warned of an impending water crisis. There are reports of bombing campaigns purposely targeting irrigation wells. The Ministry of Health in Gaza is out of 40 per cent of essential medicines and running low on basics like bandages and syringes.
Gaza’s dire situation began in 1948 when Zionist militia groups expelled over 700,000 Palestinians from their land, 200,000 of whom fled to Gaza and tripled its population.
Historically, Gaza had been known for the fresh water oasis of Wadi Gaza, an important stop on trade routes between Egypt and Syria. No longer an oasis, lands razed and levelled by Israeli bulldozers along Gaza’s eastern border (29 per cent of arable land) are now closed. Israeli naval ships harass and water cannon Palestinian fishermen, restricting them to three nautical miles from shore.
Polluted sewage is leaking into the coastal aquifer from water networks and buildings bombed by Israeli airstrikes in 2008-09’s operation “Cast Lead”.
Israel has also blocked the equipment needed to repair the damaged infrastructure. With tap water undrinkable, some people in Gaza are now surviving on 20 litres/day/person, while water consumption for the average Israeli is about 300 litres/day/person.
All of Gaza’s 10,000 smallholder farms were damaged in the 2008-09 onslaught, half a million trees uprooted and more than one million chickens were killed along with sheep, cattle and goats. The Israelis destroyed 60 per cent of the agricultural industry in Gaza, causing $268m in losses.
The proportion of Gazans judged “food insecure” increased to 75 per cent and in the aftermath, many households have been found to be chronically food insecure. Two years after the attack, the unemployment rate in Gaza was 45.2 per cent.
Isolated from fields
The West Bank has fared little better. The Oslo Interim Accords of 1995 carved the West Bank into Area A under Palestinian Authority control representing 3 per cent of the West Bank, Area B under joint control totalling 25 per cent and Area C, 72 per cent of the land, under full Israeli control including the agricultural land of the Jordan Valley.
In reality, the Israeli army can invade any area at any time. The bifurcation of Palestinian land and the construction of walls and barricades have isolated farmers from fields and markets, given impunity to violent Israeli settlers and disfigured the landscape.
Israel’s long-term goal in Gaza is not only the enforcement of the siege, but also a strategic application of de-development that forces Palestinians to be dependent on either Israel or international aid.
In 2007, the Israeli military created a calculation for the minimum number of calories allowed to people in Gaza. The caloric control mechanism ensures collective punishment, but not complete starvation. It is evident that this attack and Israel’s food policy for Palestinians enjoys support from the US government.
The consequences of the recent assault will only be visible when the dust has settled. But it will surely not depart from the aim expressed by former Israeli official Dov Weisglass in 2006: “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.”
Rami Zurayk is Professor at the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences and director of the Interfaculty Graduate Environmental Sciences Program at the American University of Beirut. Author of Food, Farming and Freedom: Sowing the Arab Spring and a guest author with Al Shabaka Palestinian Policy Network. Co-author of Control Food, Control People: The Struggle for Food Security in Gaza forthcoming from the Institute of Palestine Studies.
Anne Gough is Instructor at Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences, Interfaculty Graduate Environmental Sciences Program at the American University of Beirut. Co-author of Control Food, Control People: The Struggle for Food Security in Gaza forthcoming from the Institute of Palestine Studies.