I recently visited Gaza, where I work with partners on transdisciplinary research called Gaza Foodways with over 160 women farmers and processors (members of the Urban Women Agripreneur Forum – UWAF). After two years of working together, I was finally able to meet some of these women and the team in person – civil society partners the Palestinian Hydrology Group (PHG), the Gaza Urban and Peri-urban Platform (GUPAP) and the University College of Applies Sciences (UCAS). My privileged entry to Gaza was facilitated by local food sovereignty organisation, GUPAP, and Premiere Urgence Internationale which is working on Palestinian heritage, and with farming families dealing with injuries that result from Israel’s strategy of forcibly preventing access to productive farmlands and fisheries.
In this piece, I apply the lens of Gaza’s rich food culture to past and present attacks on its territorial food systems. I consider how the 15-year blockade, the annexation of farmland and fisheries, and regular airstrikes that target farming and other essential infrastructures have shaped the contemporary food system and stretched it to breaking point. The resulting loss of local varieties of grains, fruits and vegetables impacts not only the food system, but means that the land, skills and saline tolerant varieties that are inextricably linked to life in Gaza are being lost at an alarming rate – increasing exposure to multiple shocks.
“Control oil, and you control nations; control food and you control people”, an aphorism often attributed to Henry Kissinger (1), came to mind when seeing first-hand how both strategies have been effectively deployed in Israel’s 55-year settler occupation of Palestine.
As the August 2022 war on Gaza fades from view, this latest escalation comes on top of the occupation and the fifteen-year blockade of Gaza, the annexation of farmland and fisheries, and the targeting of these and other essential infrastructures that has shaped the territorial food system and stretched it to breaking point. Yet another ceasefire does nothing to address these realities and the privations they inflict.
This encircled territory of 141 square miles, home to 2.3 million Palestinians, has long been declared ‘unlivable’. In 2015 the United Nations (again) predicted that Gaza would be uninhabitable by 2020. In that report, it noted that the blockade had ‘shattered its ability to export and produce for the domestic market, ravaged its already debilitated infrastructure, left no time for reconstruction and economic recovery, and accelerated the de-development’ of the Gaza Strip.
When thinking about Gaza, many are understandably drawn to images of displacement, containment, wars and UN relief programmes. Less is known about Gaza’s food culture that tells a parallel story steeped in the richness of interconnection. The term ‘foodways’ refers to this intersection of food culture, traditions and history – and considers the cultural, social, and economic practices relating to the production and consumption of food.
As an historically important Mediterranean port, Gaza once connected people and goods from Africa and across the Arab world to Asia. Serving as a trading and military staging post from the Pharaonic and Ottoman empires to the British Mandate era, Gaza City’s old town and port has been repeatedly occupied, besieged, destroyed and rebuilt over five millennia. Its final destruction, by the British during their siege of the Ottoman army, has left only fragments still visible today.
Roman and Byzantine mosaics have been discovered at archaeological sites, one recently uncovered by a farmer and his son when planting an olive tree. These mosaics document tangible and intangible culture, in vivid colour and extraordinary detail, the region’s rich flora, fauna and food history featuring fruits, vegetables, grains and livestock.
Gazan foods remain famous across the region for the fiery fish dishes cooked with chilli, citrus and herbs (zebdyet), as well as traditional grains such as freekah, dishes made from ‘baladi’ or local vegetables and pulses such as aubergine (babaganoush) and chickpeas (houmous), and the intensely sweet knafeh combining nuts, syrup and cheese. As with its population, these flavours were expanded after 1948 by farming families expelled from their villages in historical Palestine, each bringing their own seeds and food traditions. Their descendants are now living as landless refugees, making up 90% of Gaza’s population.
Women Farming the Territory
Farming in Gaza today is characterised by urban and peri-urban agriculture, caught between the annexation of its border farms and urban expansion on ever shrinking lands. Due to a combination of external pressures resulting in land expropriation, and internal population pressures, since the 2017 census, no land is recognised as ‘rural’ in Gaza today. Farms comprise micro, small and medium family farming units, providing a livelihood source for the quarter of the population. Seventy-six percent of these farmers are women – either as paid labourers or unpaid family members. I wondered why only men are referred to as ‘farmers’, and was informed that only men own or manage land, while women and young people are considered ‘farm labour’. However, of the 133 UWAF farmers we’re working with, 49 rent or manage land, and 84 women claim ownership, whether formally or as breadwinners and decision-makers. Nonetheless, the role of women goes largely unacknowledged in the census and other statistics. As well as those women that do farm, 17% of households have home gardens of a little over 200 sq metres. 92% of these gardens are used for food production – either for family consumption, sharing or bartering to ameliorate the stresses of blockade (2).
Given the salinity of sandy coastal soils, farming this land requires skills honed over generations. Traditional nutrient-rich baladi varieties of olive, date palm, citrus and grape have been uniquely adapted over millennia to cope with its saline conditions. The heavier clay-based soils to the eastern border of what is now the Gaza Strip hold soil moisture and fertility for rain-fed production – once featuring more complex agroecosystems that combined livestock with grain and tree crops. Many farmers with border farms, where to farm puts their lives at risk, instead rent urban or peri-urban land, some collecting clay soils from the east and transferring these to enhance the structure of coastal soils.
UWAF member Amal Abu Mandeel (above) keeps sheep and poultry on the small peri-urban plot that she rents for $70 a year. Paying for a bowser to deliver water to the site costs around $7 every 2-3 weeks. Amal’s husband was injured while farming their border land, when a bullet severed his spinal cord. Nonetheless, he says that he continues to visit their land and to farm ‘as thanks to God for my life’. Now the family bread-winner, Amal travels to meet with and collect eggs from 50 other poultry producers, which she boxes for sale. This figure has been halved over the past year, due to ‘Newcastle disease’ that has decimated poultry production.
The realities of Gaza’s food system today speak to the co-existence of parallel economies that go beyond the narrow confines of industrial capitalism to the solidarity and care economies – where labour and goods are shared. These are often discussed as part of a shadow or ‘informal’ economy, where a light needs to be shone, and womens’ contributions valued and acknowledged. This reminded me of how much work we have, collectively, still to do in connecting to the invisible work of women around the world.
Food Systems in Gaza today
Economic and consumption patterns of Gaza today have been dramatically shaped by repeated airstrikes, occupation and blockade. While the Occupied Palestinian Territory (oPt) constitutes Israel’s third largest export market (after the US and China), 64% of this now-captive market remains food insecure, despite these in-flows of cheaper industrialised foods, who are reliant on UN food baskets. Despite being self-sufficient in some crops, pressures on grazing and arable land result in woefully low cereal production and available animal protein. In spite of these constraints, Gaza is, remarkably, self-sufficient in fruits and vegetables, with the capacity to produce 300,000 tons of mixed fruits, grains and vegetables. That’s more than enough to feed its population and bring in export revenue. Prior to the blockade, an agreement with Israel permitted 400 trucks per day loaded with agricultural produce to exit Gaza, 85% of which were bound for markets in Israel and the West Bank. This was reduced to 13.5 trucks per month, and is now thought to be around 50% of pre-blockade figures.
Degraded Soil and Imported Seeds
In an attempt to compete with highly subsidised food imports, many farmers have become dependent on imported synthetic inputs (of fertiliser, pesticides, herbicides and hybrid seeds). These inputs have effectively increased the cost of local production and undermined soil biology and its ability to retain moisture and fertility. Nitrate leaching into groundwater supplies has become a major source of pollution. And so the cycle of decline and dependence is mutually reinforcing – often to the point that only high-tech innovations can provide viable answers.
Increased dependence on hybrid seed displaces open pollinated baladi seeds that can be saved and sown again the following year. Importantly, these locally adapted seeds are at the heart of Gaza’s food culture and the diversity they represent is essential not only for nutrition, but also for climate change adaptation.
Gaza’s only seed bank is in Al Quarara near the southern city of Khan Yunis, managed by UWAF member Hanadi Muhanna with her father Salama. Here they preserve baladi seed, so far saving 33 varieties selected for their drought tolerance and disease resistance. These are multiplied by a small network of trained farmers who receive 20 seeds, and produce between 300-500 kgs of seed that is returned and distributed to hundreds of farmers.
Water, Waste and the ‘Humanitarian’ Crises
Israel’s annexation of Palestinian land, together with the blockade, has severely restricted infrastructure development for the safe disposal of solid, organic and industrial wastes. The cycling of organic waste (estimated to constitute 60% of all Gaza’s waste) is essential to building healthy productive soils. Without this infrastructure, burgeoning landfills create a waste siege. Whether burned or left leaching into groundwater sources, the effects have profound impacts on ecosystem and human health.
With Gaza’s population demands, the over-exploitation of the coastal aquifer has resulted in sea water intrusion and its 95% salination. This historically significant aquifer is now considered unfit for human consumption or irrigation (OCHA, 2019). Nonetheless, being forced to irrigate with aquifer water further increases soil salinity. Yet these privations are not simply about growing demand, they are about the systematic corralling of people and the destruction of their infrastructure.
Airstrikes on Gaza’s largest sewage treatment plant in 2008 resulted in the release of 100,000 cubic metres of sewage into neighbouring homes and farmland. Still recovering after 2008, the 2018 ‘Israeli destruction and demolition of the sanitation infrastructure resulted in environmental breakdown, with the discharge of raw solid and liquid wastes into the sea, heightening pollution threats to the very fish stocks that Gazan fishers and consumers depend upon.
Repair of ageing and damaged infrastructure is consistently hampered by the blockade, with Israel refusing to allow access to vital equipment. The resulting reductions in daily electricity, to only a few hours per day, affects farmers’ ability to irrigate, but also pumping, desalination and sewage treatment.
To avoid consuming polluted water, those who can afford to buy water from private companies that operate desalination plants (which depends upon stable energy supplies), or on Mekorot, Israel’s national water company that pipes and sells water at a considerable price into Gaza. Water extracted from Gaza’s aquifer is cheaper in Israel, used for large-scale irrigation in industrial farming. Smaller amounts are piped and sold back into Gaza at a higher price. Israel retains control of all water resources in the oPt, and consumes 5-times more water than Gaza and the West Bank combined. In its 2021 report, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) states that ‘Israel, as the occupying Power, has adopted practices and policies creating a coercive environment and unbearable living conditions, including by placing restrictions on access to water.’
Internationally funded sewage treatment plants may, for now, have reduced sewage flows. But there remains the persistent threat of limited capacity, faltering energy supplies and future attacks.
The convergence of these politically-induced hazards constitutes both acute health threats and a form of slow violence imposed on the population of Gaza, the causes of which are so protracted and intertwined that they are almost imperceptible to those attempting to hold powers to account, be they local, external or international.
Despite the now normalised targeting of farmers and the ongoing blockade and regular airstrikes, it is land invasions that represent the most serious threat.
Far from leading to a return of 25% of land previously under Israeli settlements and militarised zones, Israel’s ‘disengagement’ from Gaza in 2005 increased the inaccessibility of farmland to 29%. By 2006 Israel had begun imposing its blockade, with the election of Hamas in 2007 speeding up this process.
Over a third of Gaza’s farmland now sits in these ‘access restricted areas’ (ARAs) along the northern and eastern borders that once formed the territory’s fruit and bread baskets. The exact range of the zone is undeclared but is understood to vary between 300 and 1,000 metres.
Similarly, Gaza’s access to its coastal waters has unilaterally been reduced from 20 down to as little as 6 nautical miles, depriving its artisanal fishers of access to the most productive Mediterranean fishing grounds. Those who stray too close to these heavily restricted areas risk being shot and their equipment being confiscated or destroyed. In the context of these human rights violations, an industry which 20 years ago supported 10,000 artisanal fishers, has been reduced to fewer than 4,000.
Retaining line of sight, the land border is also ‘manned’ by remote-controlled machine guns, ground sensors, and drones that are increasingly deployed along the 60-kilometre border. According to interviews with Premiere Urgence Internationale staff, by July 2022, there had already been 304 incidents of shootings and airstrikes along the Access Restricted Areas (ARAs), with 5 farmers shot dead and many more left with violently acquired disabilities. None of these are yet captured by OCHA’s Critical Humanitarian Indicators, despite calls by human rights NGOs. In 2021 there were 600 such incidents reported, and the destruction of 215 acres due to regular incursions with bulldozers and biannual herbicide spraying along the border, apparently for security purposes.
‘Incursions’ and Invasions
This image, after ‘Operation Rainbow’ in 2004, from Human Rights Watch that reports on damage to homes, in fact clearly shows that greenhouses and agricultural areas were actually key targets.
Between 2000-2008 it is estimated that 112,000 olive trees were uprooted during Israeli ‘incursions’. After Operation Cast Lead (2008-9) the UN fact-finding mission documented wide-scale damage to fields, vegetable crops, orchards, livestock, wells, hatcheries, beehives, greenhouses, irrigation networks, barns and stables. In 2009-2010 over 35,750 cattle, sheep and goats and more than one million birds and chickens were killed. Importantly, the systematic removal of adapted olive and citrus trees cannot be replaced by young stock – these being intolerant of Gaza’s increasingly saline conditions. According to this UNEP report:
Agriculture in the Gaza Strip is only sustained by the very delicate handling of the land by the farming community, which has generations of accumulated knowledge. The recent destruction of the vegetation cover has degraded the land in several ways. First, the mechanical ripping and removal of trees, shrubs and crops has moved, mixed and thinned the topsoil cover over large areas. This degradation of the top productive layer will impact future cultivation of the land. Second, the passage of heavy tracked vehicles has compacted the soil into a dense crust.
After the 2014 Gaza bombardment, Operation Protective Edge, the UN was denied access, but reported that the destruction of critical infrastructure had become ‘a recurring reality’.
Compensation for the destruction of Palestinian farmland and infrastructure by the Israeli Defence Force is to be met by the United Nations through contributions from member states. To date, no compensation for past incursions or invasions has been made to Palestinian farmers.
Attacks on civil society voices
In ongoing and unsubstantiated attacks on civil society, Israel has so far designated six respected human rights organisations as terrorist organisations, including the Union of Agricultural Workers Committees (UAWC) that supports farmers with the legal and material means to remain on their land. Nonetheless, and despite commissioning lengthy forensic audits that found no evidence for these claims, several donor governments proceeded to cut long-standing funding. The UN has called for the immediate resumption of funding. This designation, nonetheless, enables Israel to raid and close offices, and arrest and charge staff with terrorist offences, as with the recently convicted Gaza director of international NGO World Vision. These attacks on civil society constitute a dramatic new turn.
As one of my contacts explained, ‘Israel is no longer satisfied with ripping out the seed itself, it must poison the ground around it to kill off everything’.
Ongoing structural violence perpetrated against Gaza seems designed to hinder Gaza’s (and the oPt) ability to feed itself with dignity – with, as yet, no right to defend its land, food or culture without sovereign statehood recognised under international law.
Ultimately the international community remains complicit in its silence. Israel’s unrelenting violence renders the maintenance of healthy food systems virtually impossible. And however much the costs of the damage it may quietly cover, such are the excruciating deprivations inflicted upon the people of Gaza that it may indeed, before much longer, become uninhabitable.
- It is also the title of an extremely accessible and informative book: Zurayk, R. & Gough, A (2010) Control Food, Control People: The Struggle for Food Security in Gaza. Institute of Palestinian Studies. Beirut.
- 2019 CIRAD Study on Small-scale Agriculture in the Palestinian Territories