Harriet Sherwood and the myth of olive oil shortages in Gaza

Hadar Sela recently commented on Harriet Sherwood’s report in the Guardian (Gaza gastronomy”, May 14) which focused on a food collective in Gaza called Zeitun, as well as a recently published book titled ‘The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey co-written by Maggie Schmitt and ‘Comment is Free’ contributor Laila Haddad.


In addition to the important questions raised by Sela about Haddad – a one-stater who has previously ‘informed’ readers at ‘Comment is Free’ that Gaza is worse than a prison camp, and has used Electronic Intifada to warn of an impending “Gaza genocide” – the Guardian report is notable for the following claims made by Sherwood in the context of explaining the broader challenges of cooking in the Palestinian run territory:

In Gaza, almost 1 million people – more than half the population – receive basic food assistance from the United Nations. The 13 women of the Zeitun Kitchen co-operative [a women’s co-operative, which caters for weddings and family parties in Gaza] have learned to adapt to the privations of life in Gaza: shortages of power and cooking oil; Israel’s ban on many foodstuffs during the three years in which a stringent blockade was in place; the fluctuations in black market supplies through the tunnels to Egypt; the destruction of and restrictions on access to prime agricultural land; the imposition of strict limits on how far from shore Gaza’s fishermen can lower their nets.

Olive oil is just one example. An essential ingredient in most Palestinian dishes, the uprooting of olive trees in both Gaza and the West Bank has made the once-abundant oil prohibitively expensive for many families. Now it is often used just to dress a dish, rather than create it.

So, is there a shortage of olives or olive oil in Gaza, as Sherwood contends?


An increase in Palestinian olive trees:

  • CAMERA’s Tamar Sternthal, in fisking a Los Angeles Times review of ‘Gaza Kitchen’ by Carol J. Williams, addressed the specific contention by Williams – similar to Sherwood’s claim – that “locally made olive oil has disappeared” due to the Israeli blockade, and was able to demonstrate that there are actually “significantly more olive trees in Gaza now than in the years before Israel imposed a blockade.”  

An increase in olive oil production

  • Additionally, the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) on March 17, 2013 noted that there was a significant “increase in olive oil production in Palestine [West Bank and Gaza] in 2012“. The quantity of olive oil extracted in “Palestine” in 2012 rose, PCBS statistics demonstrated, by 10.6% compared to 2011. (Additionally, there is evidence that olive oil production in Gaza specifically increased significantly in 2012)

A surplus of olive oil:

  • A detailed economic report by the PCBS in 2012 indicated that Palestinian olive oil production was expected to be 18 thousand tons in 2012. Taking into account the 6 thousand ton surplus from the previous year, the total available supply of olive oil in the Palestinian territories was expected to be nearly 24 thousand tons.  Since the local annual consumption of olive oil, again per the PCBS, is about 14 thousand tons, there was an expected surplus of approximately 10 thousand tons of olive oil in “Palestine” for the current year. 
  • Additional data by the World Bank supports the PCBS conclusion that olive oil production in the Palestinian territories greatly exceeds local consumption.

Exports of olives and olive oil

Data suggests that olive oil prices have recently decreased in Gaza.

  • The economic analysis of Gaza by the PCBS cited above suggested a decrease in the price of olive oil in the Palestinian territories in 2012, compared to 2011. [Table 6.2]

So, not only is there no evidence to support Harriet Sherwood’s claim that there is a shortage of olive oil in Gaza (and related higher prices) due to “the uprooting of olive trees” by Israel, but PCBS data suggests an abundant supply of olives and olive oil in the West Bank and Gaza, and that prices, if anything, may have fallen a bit from 2011 levels.

Once again, it seems likely that the Guardian’s Jerusalem correspondent relied solely on anecdotal evidence from Palestinian sources‘ without fact-checking the specific claims using readily available open source information.

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