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Gaza on the Ground
Let Them Eat Falafel: Israel's So-Called "Easing" of its Siege on Gaza

By Mohammed Omer


Raouf Abu Eisifan at his falafel stand in Rafah, Gaza. (Photo M. Omer)

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs , January 22, 2011

"Falafel for two shekels," Uncle Raouf says to a young girl in the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah. Removing the falafel from the deep fryer, he counts out the pieces for the girl, then moves on to the next customer. Everyone standing in line seems to agree that falafel tastes better now than it did a few months ago.

The reason? Israel has slowly been allowing delicious fresh coriander back into Gaza through the crossings it controls. It's a development one might not read about in mainstream media stories about Gaza, but the people who live under siege there notice the improvement.

Raouf Abu Eisifan, a 40-year-old father of three who owns a falafel stand in Rafah, explains the difference. "For three years we had to use processed coriander," he says. "Now, at last, we have fresh coriander to flavor the falafel."

Earlier in 2010, the Israeli Defense Ministry refused to reveal why Israel bans the import of such simple items as coriander, cilantro, sage, jam, chocolate, French fries, dried fruit, fabrics, notebooks, flowerpots and toys—apparently due to the "security reasons" bogeyman—while at the same time allows cinnamon, plastic buckets and combs to enter Gaza. Many Gazans believe that Israeli commercial interests determine which items are permitted into Gaza.

As the result of a lawsuit filed by the Israeli human rights group Gisha, Israel finally released three documents outlining its policy for which goods it allows to enter Gaza. Since the release of the documents, and its deadly May 31 attack on the Mavi Marmara, Israel has been under pressure to ease restrictions on Palestinians in Gaza. That is why Abu Eisifan can now buy a kilo of fresh coriander for his falafels for half the price of the tasteless processed type, which used to cost 30 shekels.

"I never knew why they wouldn't allow coriander in," he laughs, noting that falafel "can't be a major security threat. Indeed, it's just the simple food of the underdog in Gaza who can't afford meat."

It's certainly an improvement over the coriander smuggled through Egypt, which was stale by the time it reached his falafel stand. At other times the scarcity of cooking oil forced him to use industrial gas canisters to prepare his falafel, affecting the flavor. The scarcity of other ingredients had an impact on prices as well: when the cost of pepper and cumin rose, Abu Eisifan had to charge more for his falafels. This only added to the distress of many Gaza families for whom falafel and beans have become the basic food over the course of Israel's punitive four-year siege. It's what they eat twice a day, for breakfast and dinner.

As he stands by his hot fryer, however, Abu Eisifan insists that the ability to buy fresh coriander is not enough. Jamal Abu Hassan, 35, who has stopped at Abu Eisifan's stand for a falafel sandwich on his way to work, agrees. "The taste is better now," he acknowledges, "but I will not thank Israel for something which is a basic right. Gaza needs much more from Israel than just better tasting falafel." Pausing, he continues: "We miss the flavors of freedom and independent security."

"Hostile Entity"

Israel first imposed its siege on Gaza in February 2006, after Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank alike elected a Hamas government in free and fair parliamentary elections. The Israeli ban on all but 10 basic items from entering Gaza began in September 2007, when then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's security cabinet declared the Gaza Strip a "hostile entity." Three months earlier, U.S.-trained fighters affiliated with Hamas' rival, Fatah, reportedly attempted to overthrow the democratically elected Hamas government in Gaza. Many Palestinians, including Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan, were forced to flee Gaza for the West Bank, where Ramallah-based President Mahmoud Abbas proceeded to dissolve the Unity Palestinian government. When Abbas' term expired in January 2009, he was reappointed by the PLO Central Council and remains in office today.

To Abu Eisifan, who for 17 years worked for an Israeli elevator company, the label of "hostile entity" is a tragic joke. "We lived and worked together in the past," he explains. He believes the Israeli policy is meant to serve as a distraction from the real issues of Jerusalem, settlements and Palestinian refugees.

Israel's 2007 decision expanded to 81 the number of items allowed to enter the Gaza Strip, according to the BBC. The ban was denounced by human rights groups worldwide as illegal under international law and as constituting collective punishment, a crime against humanity under the 4th Geneva Conventions. Since then, several United Nations and NGO reports, in addition to the documents released this past August in response to the Gisha lawsuit, confirm that the intent of the restrictions is indeed collective punishent. To date no credible reason or evidence has been given—perhaps because none exists—to support Israel's assertion that such spices as coriander and cilantro, or French fries or notebooks, threaten the security of the Jewish state.

"What security are you talking about?" scoffs Abu Eisifan. "Israel is the fourth most powerful military state in the world, with nuclear weapons—and they are concerned about fighting civilians who can't even find underpants to buy in the market?"

Chimes in another of Abu Eisifan's customers: "You see, this is what Israel wants—to turn our case into one of coriander leaves and loaves of bread so that our national rights and underpants can wait forever."

Award-winning journalist Mohammed Omer reports on the Gaza Strip, and maintains the Web site. He can be reached at .

:: Article nr. 74176 sent on 22-jan-2011 19:41 ECT


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