“This tractor does two things – it turns the land and turns us off the land. There is little difference between this tractor and a tank. The people were driven, intimidated, hurt by both. We must think about this.” — John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Chapter 14
“If the olive trees knew the hands that planted them, their oil would become tears.” — Mahmoud Darwish
Last month, as the horrifying existential and delegitimizing threat of a few small boats and dozens of courageous peace activists (including a bunch of old folks, a Holocaust survivor, and a Pulitzer Prize laureate) armed with international law, an affinity for human rights, humanitarian aid, and scary potential papercut-inducing letters of support for Palestinian freedom and self-determination sought to challenge the illegal Israeli blockade, The New York Times‘ Ethan Bronner did his best to divert attention away from the suffering in Gaza by publishing articles showing how wonderful and luxurious life is in an besieged open-air prison.
On June 28, Bronner published a piece entitled, “A Bountiful Harvest, Rooted in a Former Settlements Soil.” The Times online header read: “Gaza Establishes Food Independence in Former Israeli Settlements.” Beyond the obvious agenda inherent in these banners, the piece itself peddles age-old Zionist tropes of historical revisionism, land redemption and blooming deserts.
Hundreds of acres of watermelons, orange saplings and grapevines stretch in orderly rows out to the horizon. Irrigation hoses run along the sand, dripping quietly. Apple trees are starting to blossom nearby. Avocados and mangoes are on their way.
Gaza, cut off by Israel and Egypt for the past four years and heavily dependent on food aid, is expanding an enormous state-run farm aimed at gaining partial food independence. Most striking is that the project sits in the center of the coastal strip on the sites of the former Israeli settlements whose looted greenhouses and ruined fields became a symbol of all that had turned sour in the Israeli withdrawal six years ago.
What Bronner leaves out is the extent of the aid dependency and humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Earlier that same week, Chris Gunness, senior director at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), put it this way:
Let’s look at the basic humanitarian facts on the ground. Ninety five percent of water in Gaza is undrinkable. Forty percent of disease is waterborne, it’s caused by poor water. 45.2 percent of the labor force is unemployed. Eighty percent aid dependency. A tripling of the abject poor since the blockade. There’s clearly a crisis in every aspect of life in Gaza.
A recent report by the World Food Programme revealed that only 20% of Gaza’s population could be classified as “food secure,” while “the prevalence of Gaza household food insecurity remains very high at 54 percent with an additional 12 percent of households vulnerable to food insecurity.” The report also found that 38% of Gaza residents live below the poverty line, noting that “[w]ithout social and humanitarian assistance, nearly half of the Gaza population would be under the poverty line (48.2 percent).”
Bronner writes of Israel’s removal of “9,000 settlers and all of its soldiers from Gaza in 2005,” at which point “[t]he settlers’ high-tech greenhouses, which were bought for the Palestinians with $14 million in donations, were left unguarded and within days were stripped of computer equipment, irrigation pipes, water pumps and plastic sheeting.” He omits the fact that Gaza remains occupied territory, controlled externally on all sides – land, sea, air – and constantly under attack by the Israeli military. Bronner describes the economic siege and collective punishment of a civilian mundanely as “security procedures on exiting trucks” imposed by Israel after “an attack on the border.”
In truth, the result was a near total ban on exports which has devastated Gaza and made impossible any sort of economic recovery. The chart below, taken from a 2010 report by the Palestine Trade Center, shows annual export trends from June 2006 to July 2010.
Between November 2010 and May 2011, only 290 truckloads of exports were allowed to leave Gaza, despite the supposed “relaxation” of the siege in June 2010. These totals represent “only 5 percent of the pre-blockade export volume“, when more than 960 truckloads exited Gaza each month. Israeli human rights organization Gisha recently reported, “Between November 2010 and April 2011, Israel exceptionally allowed export of a minimal amount of strawberries, flowers, peppers and tomatoes from Gaza to European markets.” Gisha also revealed that “the average rate of export during that time was two truckloads per day” and that “since May 12, 2011, no trucks carrying goods for export have left the Strip.”
Bronner boasts of increased productivity, the rebirth of settlement areas, farms which are “expanding every year” and providing “jobs for 500 people, as well as fruits and vegetables for large segments of Gaza’s 1.6 million inhabitants,” as well as “100 tons of grapes and 23,000 tons of watermelons” produced and sold locally. He describes meetings held over “spiced coffee… slices of crisp apple and cucumber.”
Yet, even more alarming than Bronner’s denial of Israeli responsibility as an occupying power for the well-being of Gaza’s inhabitants (declaring that “in the past couple of years” Gaza has “struggled with its isolation and economic decline”, as if it were not deliberate Israeli policy and a clear contravention of international law) is his inversion of victimization and false equivalency:
For the former Jewish settlers, who began coming here in the 1970s, the loss of their livelihoods and homes when the Israeli Army removed them remains a source of trauma. The way they mourn and remember their loss bears at times a striking resemblance to the way Palestinian refugees mourn theirs.
At a small museum at the entrance to Jerusalem named for the former settlement bloc, Gush Katif, that loss is on display: the keys to a former synagogue hanging on a wall, a cup of broken glass from its windows nearby and color photographs of smiling farmers in their greenhouses cultivating yellow peppers and geraniums.
Farming was the core of the settlers’ lives here. They provided 10 percent of Israel’s agricultural output and 65 percent of its organic greenhouse vegetables, exporting $25 million worth of produce annually. Many of those settlers remain in transitional housing inside Israel and in West Bank settlements. The failure of the Israeli government to resettle them properly has been yet one more argument offered in Israel against settler withdrawals for a Palestinian state.