No flowers from Gaza this Valentine's Day

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It is that time of year again when flowers are sold at outrageous prices to satisfy the desires of many bleeding hearts, and to support the well-established economy of love. For many people in Gaza, Valentine's Day is less about romance and more about survival.

Between the early 1990s and 2000s, a floral industry, which was encouraged by European donor states, was booming in Gaza. This costly industry requires a significant amount of water and electricity, which is supplied to Gaza by Israel.

Over 40 million flowers were sold every year to European markets, especially Holland, mainly to Christmas and Valentine's Day consumers. However, the adverse conditions facing this industry since 2008 are bringing it close to collapse.

During the deadly attack on Gaza between December 2008 and January 2009, no goods were allowed in or out of Gaza, with some exceptions.

The Dutch government appealed to the Israeli government to allow the export of flowers to Holland for the celebration of Valentine's Day. Israel agreed to allow a few hundred thousand flowers as an act of goodwill, thus making flowers and the Israeli planes the only objects moving in and out of Gaza.

This act of 'goodwill' proved that flowers destined for the celebration of love are more valuable than the people growing them. The majority of these people were, and still are, living in the conditions of an open-air prison.

The export restrictions imposed on Gaza since 2008, coupled with the damages to its water and electricity infrastructure from the Israeli bombs, resulted in serious losses to the flower farmers. Many of the expensively grown flowers were being fed to cattle, as the local market was oversaturated.

In 2010, the Dutch government promised to support the industry by financing 30 to 60 per cent of the farmers' expenses, but this funding declined, gradually reaching five per cent in December 2014. Given these conditions, the farmers were forced to abandon this promising economy, which for a short period brought some prosperity to Gaza's besieged inhabitants.

The rise and fall of this industry points to the deliberate Israeli policy of keeping the Palestinian economy subservient to Israel. This policy, which is supported by many of Israel's Western allies, including Canada and the United States, is justified through a discourse of security and self-defence.

Violent acts of collective punishment against the Palestinians -- such as land occupation and confiscations, siege and starvation, fuel and electricity cuts, infrastructure destruction, and assassinations and murders -- are legitimized through a rhetoric of defence.

Joseph Massad, a Professor of Modern Arab Politics at Columbia University, notes that this prevailing logic has been powerful tool of oppression since the establishment of the first Israeli colonial settlement in Palestine.

Israel, he contends, "has the right to oppress the Palestinians and does so to defend itself, but were the Palestinians to defend themselves against Israel's oppression, which they do not have a right to do, Israel will then have the right to defend itself against their illegitimate defense of themselves against its legitimate oppression of them, which it carries out anyway in order to defend itself legitimately."

The floral industry, like most industries in the West Bank and Gaza, is controlled by Israel. The occupation, along with the Oslo Accords signed in 1993, preserved Israel's role as the main supplier of most goods, and as the one having the upper hand on exports.

Gaza, Avi Shlaim, an emeritus professor of International Relations at the University of Oxford, writes, "is not simply a case of economic under-development but a uniquely cruel case of deliberate de-development… The development of local industry was actively impeded so as to make it impossible for the Palestinians to end their subordination to Israel and to establish the economic underpinnings essential for real political independence…Gaza is a classic case of colonial exploitation in the post-colonial era."

The floral industry proved yet again that the Palestinian economy is disposable. Perhaps this should not be surprising, given that Palestinian lives were treated as disposable during the recurring attacks on Gaza.

The people of Gaza, however, have responded with resiliency and adaptability. With the slowing down of this industry, many farmers have turned their fields into fertile ground for the growth of other produce.

Where once flowers grew, there is now produce intended for Palestinian consumption. And the trucks that transported flowers in earlier times were deployed during the July 2014 attack on Gaza to transport the injured to hospitals.

Nevertheless, with the decline of this industry, fewer flowers will make it to Europe this year for Valentine's Day celebrations, pushing Gaza further into poverty and dispossession. Happy Valentine's Day.

 

Suha Diab holds a PhD in Public Policy and Political Economy from Carleton University. 

Photo: flickr/mrhayata

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