By Khaled Diab
The Dutch have employed some novel flower power to persuade Israel to relax its embargo on Gaza. Now it's time to end the blockade.
Valentine's Day – that festival of naff consumerism and kitsch infatuation – is not an occasion close to our heart. Love is a year-round ethereal pursuit and efforts to box it in on a particular day or package it in the form of cards, chocolates and flowers does not appeal.
But this year, I'm feeling a little more charitable towards old Saint Valentine after he made a foray into the Middle East. While Gazans, living amid the rubble of the recent Israeli invasion, are unlikely to be celebrating Valentine's this year, the festival could mark a small step towards breaking the siege under which they live.
Literally, in a display of flower power in action, the Dutch government persuaded Israel to loosen its blockade of Gaza and let through a shipment of Valentine's carnations destined for the Netherlands – the first exports from Gaza in a year.
The Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen decided that the best way his country could start to mend fences was to say it with flowers. “The Netherlands would like to help the Palestinians pick up the pieces and give them a chance for a better future through Israeli-Palestinian economic co-operation,” he said.
It may surprise many to learn that the Netherlands, the world's foremost flower trader, is importing carnations from Gaza, where more things seem to go boom than bloom. However, prior to the Israeli embargo, Gaza had a blossoming flower industry.
With its mild coastal climate and well-drained soil, the Gaza Strip is ideal for commercial flower cultivation. As a reflection of this, there are more than a hundred small flowers farms across the Gaza Strip, and they employ some 7,000 farm workers. But Israel has barred even this harmless cash earner – a wilting wreath on the tombstone of the Gazan economy.
“Shame on Israel. But shame on the Palestinian Authority, too… And shame on the European Union, because they have done nothing either. Why are they standing back in silence and allowing this to happen to us. Tell me – what is the security risk in exporting flowers?” asked one despondent farmer last year.
The Gaza Flower Growers' Association estimates that the Strip used to export some 40 million flowers a year – other estimates are as much as double that. “We had to feed the flowers to the animals because we couldn't export them,” said Mohammed Khalil, the association's head. “We are afraid of losing our reputation in Europe and are afraid to plan ahead.”
While the 25,000 flowers that have been let through are hardly going to make much of a difference to the desperate situation in Gaza – which is grappling with mass unemployment, severe food shortages and a $2 billion tab for the recent destruction – the gesture does carry a symbolic value which highlights, somewhat poetically, the human tragedy Israel's longstanding blockade has triggered.
Now it's time for Israel to realise that showing a little bit of love for Valentine's is not enough; it, and the international community, must break the stranglehold on Gaza and end the embargo. Likewise, Egypt must open its borders crossing, too.