The two Palestinian sisters from Gaza begged to take the tray of sweets through the Israeli checkpoint. “Please,” they pleaded, “our sister is pregnant and all she wants is just to even smell it.”
The man at the first stage of the security check, a Palestinian himself, refused. Israel’s rules for what’s allowed through from Gaza can often seem arbitrary: That day in November, following a new directive, their tray of food was a no-go. Soon after, the man waved the women on through the next stage at Erez crossing—the only point of entry and exit for people between Israel and the Gaza Strip—while the women’s desserts, along with the other banned items found in their bags, like gifts of makeup and clay cooking pots, were sent back into besieged Gaza.
This scene is just a taste of how food here has become politicized—in ways, even weaponized—and a microcosm of the forces and interests shaping Gaza’s violence and humanitarian crises. From Israeli assaults and restrictions on what comes in and out, to the Palestinian political split and Hamas’ repressive rule, to the weaknesses of an aid-dependent economy—to understand what’s happening in Gaza, just ask someone what they’re eating and why.
Consider the case of 31-year-old Warda, an affable chef and divorced mother of three stuck living with her abusive and very conservative family in Gaza City. (MUNCHIES is just using her first name for privacy reasons.) Food is a source of many of her life’s pleasures—as well as a symptom of so many of her pains and pressures.
Warda has never left Gaza, a just 365-square-kilometer coastal enclave of nearly two million people. Periodic Israeli closures have been occurring all of her life, restricting movement. But then in 2007, Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade after Hamas, a designated terror group with wide social service networks, took over the territory and ousted its rival, the Fatah party–led and western-backed Palestinian Authority (PA). Three wars and ongoing tit-for-tats of Hamas rockets and Israeli bombings later, Gaza, which is one of the densest places on earth, is collapsing with just a few hours of electricity daily, sewage-filled water, severely underserviced hospitals, and widespread unemployment that only worsens each day.
“I have no freedom,” Warda told me in June. She’s tall and sturdy and has a boisterous personality, though occasionally retreats into herself. “Where else can I go?” she asked quietly.
Warda opposes Hamas, which has imposed an extremist form of Islam and whose militants, she says, now look for any excuse to fine people to fund the cash-strapped and corrupt government (or to just fund themselves). When the blockade first began, Gazans were able to ease the siege by importing all kinds of goods (including weapons) through underground tunnels connected to neighboring Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. But the tunnel economy collapsed in 2013 after Egypt cracked down, and in the five years since, Gaza’s economy has basically ground to a halt.
Warda now runs a catering company with several other women—but she feels she is constantly walking on eggshells. She took the job in January because she loves to cook and wants to save enough money to build an extension to her family’s house, so she can have just a little more space for herself. Except the catering company, whose clients are the lucky Gazans with a little disposable income, is barely getting by. They also can’t export their products to Israel or the occupied West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority is based, because of Israeli bans. All the while, the split between Hamas and Fatah has deepened: last year, the PA stopped paying Israel for electricity to Gaza in a punitive move to squeeze Hamas out.
Like nearly all of Gaza’s residents, Warda relies on aid from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides basic food baskets and runs schools and clinics. President Donald Trump suspended some of U.S. aid to UNRWA in January, and then slashed the rest at the end of August, pushing Gazans deeper into crisis mode with cuts in services plus constant threats of more cuts to come. The UNRWA food aid isn’t the healthiest, and decades after the system began, Gaza is no closer to weaning off it. But the bigger problem is that it’s a necessity because there’s no alternative right now, according to Warda. Any money she saves goes toward building that room of her own, and that puts her among the lucky ones: Each meal brings another round of pressures.
And yet—Warda recently decided to become vegetarian (or flexitarian, as she still eats rabbit): She never liked meat much and worries about the hormones in it, so, as part of her push for independence, she said she’s only eating what she likes. There’s a common joke in the meat-obsessed Middle East that being vegetarian is grounds for asylum—but even the joke here in Gaza has a darker ending, as Warda has no way out.
Historically, though, Gaza has had a very flavorful, rich and healthy cuisine, as Laila El Haddad records in her 2013 cookbook, The Gaza Kitchen.
“While it forms part of the greater Mediterranean food universe of olives, fish, chickpeas and garden vegetables, it is also a bridge to the desert culinary worlds of Arabia, the Red Sea, and the Nile Valley,” El Haddad writes. “Within the region, the cuisine of the urban coast—noted for its sophisticated seafood dishes—is clearly distinguishable from that of the farming interior, rich in vegetables and legumes.”
The stereotypical mark of a Gazan is a love for spicy food: shatta, the Middle East’s hot sauce of choice made of crushed red peppers, is a staple in any Gaza household. Historically, Gaza was at the crux of land and sea trade connecting Africa and Asia, a centrality that infused its cuisine with a diversity of spices and styles. The popular daqqa (sometimes written dagga) salad—fresh tomatoes, hot peppers, olive oil, and dill —encompasses Gaza’s unique culinary heritage. What’s on the table also reflects the driving forces of contemporary times: Palestinian refugees poured in after Israel’s creation in 1948 (the Nakba, or disaster, in Palestinian history), which, among many changes, augmented both cuisine as an identity-maker and the territory’s complex palate.
Because of its current geographical split, Gazan dishes are less popularly known than other Palestinian and Middle Eastern staples. There’s one famed dish, for example, you’ll likely not find outside of Gaza: Knafa arabiya, a nut and bulgur-based sister to knafa nablusieh, the more popularly known cheese-filled and sugar-soaked noodle pastry.
The dish is rarely made outside Gaza, and there’s basically no way now to get it through the barricades. And even in Gaza, keepers of the tradition are growing weary of the fight: “It’s hard to create a consistent system,” Mahmoud Saqallah, owner of Saqallah Sweets, which has been in Gaza City for over a hundred years and serves some of the best knafa arabiya, told me in 2017. “It’s currently hard to get the products [needed] and everything’s more expensive.”
Israel’s land and sea restrictions on what Gazans can import and export have consequently subsumed food to politics at every stage of the food chain, Palestinians and human rights groups say.
At the Kerem Hashalom crossing, the main point of entry and exit for goods between Israel and Gaza, “there is really a lack of policy” in what’s allowed through, said Miriam Marmur of Gisha, an Israeli human rights organization. Between 2007 and 2010, Israel imposed sweeping restrictions on the exit of all goods and people from Gaza. During this time, everything was prohibited on security grounds except for some exceptions—a list that was never made available to the public, Marmur said.
In 2012, Gisha published some of this information after attaining it through a freedom of information petition. The documents showed that in 2008, the Israeli military precisely calculated the daily amount of calories needed to avoid malnutrition in Gaza (2,279 per person, in line with World Health Organization guidelines) as part of determining how much food to let in.
“The [Israeli government] thinking was we don't want Gaza residents to outright die of hunger but we definitely don’t want them to be too full or happy and fulfilled,” Marmur told me in June. She called it a form of “economic warfare” aimed at “trying to squeeze people to put pressure on them to topple Hamas.”
“It’s now eleven years later and that policy has definitely not worked,” she added.
The military denied that the calculation was intended to restrict the flow of food, but rather to help avoid a humanitarian crisis.
The Israeli military has eased some of the restrictions—most notably in 2010 when it started to allow in all goods except those banned as “dual use,” a broad category that encompasses anything that could potentially be used as or part of a weapon.
But Palestinians say many of the restrictions are punitively arbitrary and about preserving Israel’s economic advantage rather than security. Over the years, imports of chocolate, ground coriander, and industrial margarine were banned, though other herbs like hyssop and consumer packages of margarine permitted, according to Israeli researchers Aeyal Gross and Tamar Feldman. In 2009, pasta and lentils were removed from the banned list after then Senator John Kerry and other US representatives visited the Gaza Strip and were appalled to find out they were forbidden, according to Israel’s Haaretz Newspaper.
“This instilled in Gazans a strong sense of uncertainty and complete lack of control over their food choices,” Gross and Feldman wrote in a 2015 study in the Berkeley Journal of International Law. “Some of the additions to the list were even made to further Israeli economic interests, such as protecting the market prices of local Israeli farmers with excess agricultural produce.”
Gross and Feldman noted that Israeli-produced tahini, or sesame paste, took over the Gaza market after Israel periodically banned the import of sesame seeds. Red tahini, made from specially toasted seeds, is a Gazan favorite that has become too costly to make.
Today, processed foods are in theory allowed to leave Gaza for export abroad “via the Kerem Shalom Crossing in accordance with approval from the Ministry of Health and subject to security check directives at the crossing,” said a spokesperson for the Coordinator of the Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) in an email to me in August. “There is no export of processed food products from the Gaza Strip to Israel or the Judea and Samaria region [the Israeli government's term for the West Bank] due to the refusal of the Ministry of Health,” COGAT continued.
Wa’el Al Wadia, the CEO of Gaza’s largest food manufacturer, used to export 80 percent of his products to the West Bank, he told me in April. But now his operation is just a fraction of what it used to be: there’s nowhere for his bags of chips and snacks to go. He had to rebuild his factory after Israeli bombs destroyed it in the 2009 and 2014 wars, losses which he hasn’t made back.
The siege has further upended all parts of the local food economy. Abu Hasira Street is the place to go in Gaza City for the freshest fish. There, you’ll find several fish shops owned by the Abu Hasira family, and each Gazan has their preferred one. At Muneer Abu Hasira’s, the denis fish comes freshly baked and the shrimp sizzle in a clay plot with a typically Gazan spicy and savory tomato sauce.
But millions of gallons of raw sewage daily pour into Gaza’s Mediterranean beachfront: Israel destroyed much of the sewage infrastructure during the 2014 war and there’s not enough electricity to run what remains. That makes much of Gaza’s seafood, like the beloved blue crab, a no-go for those worried about what poisons the fish have ingested. Others just can’t afford fish anymore.
Before Hamas took over in 2007, Gaza exported fish to Israel and the West Bank. Now, Israel permits fishermen to only go a few miles out on security grounds. Sometimes Israeli soldiers kill fishermen who venture too far; Israel says they pose a threat as potential smugglers. Gaza’s fishing industry is just a drop in the sea of what it used to be.
Gaza’s farms, too, feel the siege in myriad ways. Many of Gaza’s prime agricultural areas are along the border with Israel: Israeli bombs dropped during wars and pesticide sprayed in the meantime (which Israel says prevents Hamas from using the areas as cover for tunnels and terror attacks) has decimated much of the land; the high cost of importing in Israeli fertilizer and seeds further limits production.
"We are trapped in the middle," Hesham Zakaria, 33, a worn-down farmer and father of six who works on a farm in Beit Hanoun, along Gaza’s northern buffer zone, told me.
Among Palestinians in Gaza, rumors are rampant that the vegetables Israel imports in are poisoned, though there’s no research to support this claim. Nevertheless, just the speculations reflect an environment in which even food has become another kind of weapon, too.
At the UNRWA distribution centers in the Gaza Strip, there are bags and cartons filled with white rice, flour and sugar, brown lentils, chickpeas, cans of sardines, powdered milk, tahini, and sunflower cooking oil. About a million of Gaza’s 1.9 million people come to one of these four times a year to receive food packages, Asem Abu Shawish, Chief of UNRWA’s Field Relief and Social Services Program in Gaza, told me in June. The most needy, 68 percent of recipients, receive a larger amount.
Outside the boxy cement structures, crowds gather and some people hawk containers of tahini or sardines for cash to pay for any other pressing needs.
Mutasem, 24, makes a few shekels transporting the food cartons to people’s homes on his donkey. He has a degree in social services, and is the youngest of twelve siblings. “This is the only work I can find,” he told me in June.
UNRWA started food distributions in 1950, two years after Israel’s founding displaced or pushed out 700,000 Palestinians, the descendants of whom today are still classified as refugees. Since its founding, UNRWA has acted as the official representative of Palestinian refugees and provides food, education, and health services in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.
“What makes it even more hopeless for the refugees [in Gaza] is that the only outlet for them is UNRWA,” explains Abu Shawish, himself a refugee educated in UNRWA schools. He said he’s lucky enough to not need the aid. But without the food baskets, he warned, many others would be starving. After America—historically UNRWA’s biggest donor—cut the remainder of its aid in August, UNRWA has been scrambling to fundraise and prevent widespread, perhaps deadly, cuts in Gaza. UNRWA also remains essential to descendants of Palestinian refugees, as by maintaining their refugee status, they preserve their legal claim to right of return to present-day Israel (which America and Israeli leaders oppose).
Over the years, UNRWA’s exact formula for who gets what food aid has changed. Of those 68 percent in most severe need, UNRWA aims to provide 80 percent of daily caloric needs (1,675 of an average 2,1000 calories), according to Abu Shawish.
All calories, though, are not created equal. Over decades, the lesser-quality white flour, rice, canola oil and powdered milk have taken a toll, both in terms of how Gazan recipes have had to be adopted to the lesser products, but also in the overall health of people.
“The international aid agencies in Gaza distribute mainly white flour and fewer traditional grains, like frika (green wheat), bulgur, and barley,” Gross and Feldman wrote in their 2015 paper. “Due to the Gazan population’s dependence on aid agencies for food, these nutritive grains have been almost entirely eliminated from their diet, undermining both the local cultural cuisine and nutrition.”
“Food aid should be provided with a clear exit strategy and avoid the creation of dependency,” they continued.
That certainly hasn’t been the case in Gaza. And this reflects one of the central criticisms Palestinians have of UNRWA: decades in, the agency has become a tool of the status quo—the occupation and weak Palestinian leadership included. But while Palestinians themselves will criticize how UNRWA is run, anyone living this reality knows that the US cuts will just hurt people and cause more instability, not lead to productive reforms.
“I am very critical of UNRWA,” Omar Shabaan, a political economist in Gaza, who was educated in UNRWA schools and used to work for the agency, told me in June. “But critique that leads to reform…. You cannot stop US aid support to UNRWA and ask UNRWA to continue acting as a tool for stability… You will kill UNRWA.”
“Because they are under this threat, sometimes they are reluctant to take these changes,” he added.
In 2016, UNRWA did roll out a reformed food basket intended to be healthier and higher in energy: They introduced lentils, chickpeas, and dried milk, replaced canned meat with more nutritious canned sardines, and reduced the amount of sugar.
“One of the criteria is community acceptance,” said Abu Shawish. For that reason, they reduced but did not eliminate sugar, he explained, because even the poorest of families need something sweet once in a while.
“If you don't have something to eat, you make tea with sugar and eat it with bread,” he said.
The food products themselves are imported from all over the world, Awni Madhoun, 61, an UNRWA Warehousing Officer in Gaza, told me in June. Rice, for instance, currently comes from Pakistan, oil from Turkey, and milk from Argentina via a company in Jordan.
Tenders go to the lowest bidder, and certain countries have small monopolies in these industries. This process also puts local producers in Gaza at a disadvantage.
“The local suppliers have different calculations, like electricity, cost of commodities from Israel,” said Madhoun. “They have a lot of calculations that make the price we receive higher than outside.”
Flour is the main item produced internally: about 30 percent of the flour comes from Gaza mills, and 70 percent from outside, largely from Turkey, said Madhoun. The exact amount, though, differs each cycle based on the monetary calculations.
Madhoun declined to answer any questions about politics: that, he said, wasn’t part of UNRWA’s mandate.
Sabah Abdul Kareem Jarbewa, 50, lives in a crumbling cement house with no proper doors or roofing off an impoverished alley in Gaza City. She and her husband, who’s disabled, are struggling to pay rent and support their seven children.
“Sometimes I sell UNRWA things for money for a pocket of zaatar [a spice mix] or tomatoes,” she told me. Her favorite food is maftoul, a kind of larger couscous, but she can’t afford the meat traditionally cooked with it. Now with money and aid growing tighter and tighter, she increasingly needs more money and has fewer items she can sell for a little cash.
“I want chicken, I want tomatoes…” she said, her voice trailing off.
There was a time, though, when you could get just about anything through Gaza’s tunnel economy, even KFC fried chicken delivered sort-of-still-fresh from Egypt (albeit for a hefty price). Between 2008 and 2013 there were about 1,000 tunnels in use, said Shaban the Gazan economist, serving as a lucrative workaround to Israel’s land and sea siege.
“Up to 2013, maybe 95 percent of food was coming through the tunnels,” said Shaban. “Because it was much cheaper, so people preferred the tunnels.”
The tunnel industry enabled Hamas to continue to import weapons and fighters. But it also served as a main source of funding for their besieged government. “The government’s exact budget is unclear,” said Shaban, but he and others have estimated that Hamas brought in half a billion yearly in taxing the tunnels.
For a while, it largely worked: Hamas could fight Israel and counter its rival PA in the West Bank, while keeping all the basics and then some available. But then in 2013 Egypt’s military retook control of the government and cracked down on Islamist movements. As an insurgency in Egypt’s Sinai raged, the military flooded and bombed the tunnels in an effort to cut Hamas and other Islamists off.
Increasingly cash-strapped, Hamas instituted taxes on all parts of daily life and commerce. For Wadia, the founder of Gaza’s largest food manufacturer, all this meant he had to pay three layers of hefty taxes for everything he imported.
“We pay tax to Israel,” he said. “We pay a tax to Fatah. We pay a tax to Hamas. We have three governments. They all shoot us…. We are very oppressed.”
The lack of agreements between Hamas and Israel, or between Hamas and Fatah, “makes it very hard to produce,” he said. He was fed up, he explained. But he had a factory and a dream to keep alive. The heavyset man eagerly passed around bags of his company’s chips, basking in praise of their taste, his main source of pride.
Hamas is notoriously secretive and non-transparent, so it’s basically impossible to quantify the extent of corruption and misuse of government funds, said Shaban.
The 2007 split between Hamas and Fatah polarized all parts of Palestinian society, including welfare: Gazans accused Hamas of providing services only to its supporters, not its opponents.
“Its impossible to access how transparent the distribution [of aid] is, for many reasons,” said Shaban, when asked how Hamas had used or abused food as a mean to garner public support. That’s in part, Shaban said, because “this is the culture of the political parties in Palestine… they will give the priority to their members.” He continued, “You could ask the same about the PA when they receive food. Did they send it to everyone? No. I know a lot of poor people who are not affiliated and they don’t receive [aid]. Not now, and they didn’t receive [before when the PA was in power].”
Israel accuses Hamas of using its money and resources to build more tunnels for smuggling in arms and to wage violence, and not for helping its population beset by a state of de-development. Inside Gaza, many Palestinians told me they are angry that Hamas officials are living large while people are struggling to just both eat and have a place to sleep. But, while living under siege, people say that frustration has nowhere productive to go. Instead, Gaza’s problems keep feeding off of each other.
“You can improve the condition of the prison a little bit, but still it’s the prison,” said Shaban.
The UNRWA cuts are just the latest kick in the gut to Gaza’s already starved economy and society. After all, to understand the folly of weaponizing food policies, just ask someone in Gaza what they are eating and why.
Ghazi M. Mushtaha, 45, is the owner of one of Gaza’s most popular ice cream companies, Eskimo el Arousa. Except during the last two summers he tells me he’s had to basically stop production: The generators to keep the factory going cost too much, while people can’t afford the electricity to keep ice cream fresh. Before Hamas and the siege, he sold often in the West Bank and would visit business contacts in Israel. In his office he still has a picture of himself twenty-five years ago, then sporting a black mustache, smiling in Tel Aviv.
“We faced troubles like this before during the last three wars, but this time it's more hard and more difficult,” he said. “Now when I'm thirsty and you bring me a small cup of water, I think it is too much.”