James M. Dorsey

Weaponizing food: Palestinians lose lives, Israelis lose humanity

Weaponizing food

A long-standing Israeli-Palestinian battlefield, food has moved center stage.

For Gazans, on the verge of starvation, the food fight is existential.

For Israelis, preventing the flow of food and desperately needed medical supplies into Gaza, is continuing a cynical and cruel policy that five months into the war has proven to be a failure.

In contrast to Israeli hopes, Gazans have not blamed Hamas for their abominable plight and have not revolted against the group. Instead, they blame Israel and the United States for allowing Israel to get away with an unconscionable weaponisation of food and basic humanitarian supplies.

Moreover, near starvation has not sparked a Gazan run on the Refah border crossing into Egypt in a bid to escape an ever-worsening human disaster and possible death.

Gazans pay the highest price while Israel digs itself ever deeper into a hole that will haunt it for years to come.

Appointed by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s predecessor, Roni Strier, the head of Israel’s National Food Security Council, called on Friday for a ceasefire, citing Gaza’s dire humanitarian situation, “which includes extreme hunger of the local population… Israel can’t ignore the humanitarian considerations it is obligated to both morally and politically,” Mr. Strier said.

Mr. Strier noted that last week’s death of more than 100 Palestinians storming an aid truck indicated “the extent of the humanitarian crisis gripping Gaza,” He asserted that “the Israeli government can’t absolve itself of responsibility for this situation.”

Israel claimed a majority of the victims had died in a stampede. Even if true, despite imagery of the incident and witness accounts that tell a different story, the stampede would not have occurred if food and aid were flowing in sufficient volumes into Gaza. Moreover, shooting to kill is a last resort in crowd control.

Meanwhile, in a vulgar display of disregard for the life of the other, that is only matched by Hamas’ callousness, Israeli soldiers posted video clips on social media as they celebrated the Gazans’ desperate plight.

“We turn on the light against this dark place and burn it until there is no trace of this whole place,” a soldier said in one clip as another set a pile of food ablaze in Gaza City’s Shejaiya neighborhood.

In another video, soldiers cooked a meal with ingredients in the abandoned home of a displaced Palestinian family that is probably scrounging for food elsewhere in the Strip.

Speaking to Haaretz newspaper, a soldier marveled at the use of spices in Gazan cuisine, seemingly oblivious to the mushrooming human disaster all around him.

“Gazan cuisine…is full of spices every house you’ll find a lot of ras el hanout-style (spice) mixes…. Every house we stayed in had olives that (Palestinians) make, which we tasted … Olive oil is also present in every home, in gallons, and it helps a lot to upgrade any food. They also have a great spicy sauce. Sometimes you encounter special things. Suddenly there’s garlic and then you go all out on pasta with tomatoes and garlic,” the soldier said.

The Israel Defense Forces’ military rabbinate has issued guidelines, entitled Kosher procedures when deep in the Gaza Strip,’ on food in Gaza while upholding Jewish law and dietary regulations.

Written by Rabbi Avishai Peretz, the head of the rabbinate’s kosher section, and approved by chief military rabbi Brigadier General Eyal Karim, the guidelines endorse the consumption of fresh fruits, vegetables except for lettuce, cauliflower, and broccoli, eggs, salt, coffee, tea, sugar, legumes, flour, juice, noodles, oil, and spices such as black pepper, turmeric, paprika, cinnamon and cumin that do not have a stamp certifying them as kosher. The guidelines ban insect-infected vegetables, fish, meat, and dairy products except when no other food is available and only in consultation with the rabbinate.

Mr. Peretz ended the guidelines with an abbreviation of the Biblical quote,  “And you shall eat the riches of all the nations.”

The Israeli-Palestinian food war is existential at multiple levels. In Gaza, it is about survival as a result of weaponization of a basic human right. On the loftier level of food and identity politics, it’s about denial of the identity of the other.

A petition calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and a boycott of Israel initiated by Palestinian chefs in the United States asserted that “Israel has long weaponized food, erasing Palestinian people while claiming their cuisine. Here in the U.S., the appropriation of Palestinian foods as ‘Israeli’ has led to more than Israelis profiting off Palestinian culture; it is an erasure that has had real implications for Palestinians. It allows us to negate their cultural currency and turn our attention away with more ease when we see Palestinian death.”

In the United States, the food battle has spilled into the streets in cities like New York where Israeli restaurants have been attacked and vandalised. An online map, since removed, identified on Google Maps 57 “Zionist restaurants” denoting Israeli and Jewish establishments in the Big Apple. The map was not associated with the petition.

Taking issue with the petition’s assertion of cultural appropriation, Israeli food writer Ronit Vered, who has featured Palestinian chefs and cookbook writers in her writing, argued that there is no such thing as an ‘original’ or ‘pure’ kitchen, and there are no foods that are not in constant motion and ceaselessly changing.”

Ms. Vered went on to say that “Palestinian cuisine – about whose existence and importance in the Palestinians’ identity perception there is no doubt – also adopted these foods in the course of intercultural give and take that took place between different communities across a very long time.”

The food critic noted that hummus with tahini “is today an integral element of the Palestinian kitchen, because many Palestinians from different socioeconomic classes consume it, at home and elsewhere. The joint customs and rituals of preparing and eating the portion are part of the family, community, and national identity of the Palestinian people. But these customs and rituals are not exclusive to them. Hummus in tahini is also an integral part of the Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian, and Israeli kitchens.”

Ironically, it was an Israeli Palestinian restaurant owner in the town of Abu Ghosh, Jawdat Ibrahim, who in the 2010s took issue with Lebanon’s attempt at appropriation of hummus in a bid to counter Israeli claims and promote Lebanese cuisine.

Mr. Ibrahim battled with then-Lebanese tourism minister Fadi Aboud about who would make it into the Guinness Book of Records by competing for the title of having made the largest pile of hummus.

Mr. Ibrahim’s 4,090-kilogram hummus served in a satellite dish was ultimately defeated by Lebanese Chef Ramzi Choueiri’s 10,452-kilogram dish presented on a 7.17 diameter ceramic plate, the world’s largest.

“It was (a) big issue ­­that hummus was Lebanese. I said, ‘No, hummus is for everybody.’ I hold a meeting in the village, and I say, ‘We are going to break Guinness Book of World Records.’ Not the Israeli government, the people of Abu Gosh,” Mr. Ibrahim said.

The truth may be in the middle. Palestinians and Israelis claim dishes whose pedigree goes far beyond either.

Even so, regional dishes are part of a battle of identities that in its more extreme forms denies the existence and demonises the other.

Nowhere is that battle fought more viciously with dire and lethal consequences than in Gaza. It’s a battle in which Palestinians lose lives in unfathomable numbers and ways of dying while Israelis sacrifice their humanity and moral integrity.

About the Author
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. He is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.
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