Crispy fried sardines. Spicy labneh dip for sweet bell peppers, cherry tomatoes and sliced cucumbers. Chilled arugula lemonade.
The top U.S. diplomat in Jerusalem, Counsel General Donald Blome, served Gaza-style cuisine at a garden party Monday night. Sound like the old-fashioned society pages? Nope. This is U.S. policy at work.
The event was designed to promote the potential of agribusiness in Gaza and tout new U.S. government investment in that crowded, narrow strip of Palestinian territory on the Mediterranean Sea.
One investment target is agriculture. Although Gaza is small and crowded, arable land lies between cities and around the edges of the strip. In some crowded urban refugee camps, small citrus and olive groves are tucked between concrete buildings. Recently, development organizations have promoted rooftop gardens.
The U.S. interest in getting Gaza agriculture and the larger economy going is, in part, security. The goal, Blome said in an interview, is “to provide an economic vision of the future, at a time when you see alternative visions being promoted throughout the region that are violent and extremist in nature.” He says it’s especially important that young Gazans will have “some kind of economic opportunities, that they will have a way forward.”
And agriculture has in the past been a significant contributor to the Gazan economy. In addition to domestic sales, between 1996 and 2007 Palestinians in Gaza sold an average of $15.6 million worth of agriculture produce outside Gaza annually, according to U.N. figures. Most produce went to Israel.
But after the militant Islamist group Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, Israel, citing security, created a buffer zone around the border, taking over crop and grazing land, and blocked Gaza products. Truckloads of all exiting goods — Gaza also used to produce furniture and textiles — dropped from over 9,000 in 2005 to 33 in 2008. And the annual value of agriculture sales outside Gaza fell to an average of $1.2 million between 2010 and 2014, according to the U.N.
The few products that were shipped out included strawberries and carnations, which were sold in Europe. Small sales of fresh herbs to the U.S. began just over two years ago.
Standing near wooden carts piled with fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, onions and herbs at the party in the Jerusalem consulate garden, Blome told his guests that eating food from Gaza in Jerusalem is rare.
“All of the produce and seafood you see before you, that you are eating right now, the fruit in the special juices we have — all of it was produced in Gaza,” Blome said. “I don’t think anyone in Jerusalem has been able to say that for the last 10 years.”
During the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, Blome said 26,000 farmers lost their livelihood because of lost crops, damaged farmland and water supplies. Since then, Israel has eased some restrictions, permitting sales of some produce to the West Bank. And, in part because of a Jewish tradition of a periodic fallow year, limited amounts of Gaza-grown tomatoes and eggplant have also been allowed to be sold in Israel this past year.
But while the number of trucks leaving Gaza full of goods for sale has jumped by 500 percent since the fall of 2014, according to a report by Gisha, an Israeli NGO focused on freedom of movement, the report also notes that is 10 percent of the average before export restrictions were put in place.
And farmers say Israel’s security checks of fresh produce headed to more lucrative outside markets remain a major obstacle.
“The crossing is the biggest obstacle to export,” says Ahmed Shafai, a 79-year-old strawberry farmer. “It doesn’t have facilities, like to keep goods cold and preserve their quality.”
Israel — and Egypt — also restricts people leaving Gaza. Shafai made it to the U.S. government party in Jerusalem, but many other farmers — and most of the Gazan journalists invited — did not receive Israeli permission to attend.
The chef did. Jamal Sobeh, 50, used to work in Israel. Now he cooks at a high-end restaurant in Gaza City, making both local and Western dishes for business people and staff of international aid organizations.
Farmers don’t frequent the restaurant, Level Up, on the top floor of Gaza City’s tallest building. But Sobeh says he’d love to see external markets open up for Gaza produce.
“I would definitely be happy if farmers could export more produce,” he says. “It’s good for the economy in general.”
Gaza has one of the highest levels of unemployment in the world. Over 80 percent of residents receive food aid from the United Nations.
On Monday evening the U.S. announced a new $50 million project to boost short-term employment across industries in Gaza.
Although furniture may at some point be more lucrative, says Dave Harden, the mission director of the USAID West Bank/Gaza office, he notes that Israeli restrictions on importing wood make that industry difficult to revive quickly.
“Ag is maybe the easiest, fastest thing to turn on,” Harden says.
To develop agriculture specifically, a separate USAID project envisions developing cold storage and food-processing facilities, and helping farmers expand markets.
The idea is to give farmers options, says Conan Peisen, director of USAID’s Private Enterprise Office in the region.
“So if they want to sell it internally, if they want to sell it externally, it’s their choice,” Peisen says. “They can process the food, or put it in cold storage for a longer term when prices are better, or whatever, they have that decision-making ability.”
Harden says the high level of need in Gaza after the destruction of the 2014 conflict led to, among other things, a tactical change in the U.S. approach: For the first time since 2003, the aid agency is now allowed to hire American contractors to do work directly for the U.S. government in Gaza, rather than only provide grants to support NGO work.
American contractors — and diplomats — have largely not been allowed to enter Gaza since a bomb blast against a U.S. convoy in 2003 killed three American security contractors.
But this policy change allows USAID to bring in more sophisticated experts in what Gaza needs, from designing water systems to developing global markets. Harden says hiring U.S. firms to carry out assistance to Gaza also provides more accountability for the work USAID wants done.
“I think the consequence of us putting in American architectural design firms, engineering and construction firms, and trade firms, is very important for us to achieve a different trajectory for Gaza,” Harden says.
Tania Hary, Gisha’s executive director, says after the vast destruction of Gaza in the 2014 war, there has been a change in the tone toward Gaza, even from Israeli officials.
“I think there has been a lot of helpful rhetoric,” Hary says, “but they need to close the gap between rhetoric and practice. I think the U.S. should raise the volume and be more forceful on ending barriers to trade.”