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That's A Lot Of Flour

There's a lot of crap being written about Gaza. So let me remind those taken in by it that the Strip has been in Palestinian hands since the summer of 2005. If they didn't like how Israel monitored its frontier with them they always had the option of trying to make a deal for an opening to the world through Egypt. Of course, that would have been easier to accomplish with Cairo had the Palestinian Authority remained in control of the territory. But Hamas took Gaza over after a mini-civil war, mini but with monstrous killings, and expelled the Abbas contingent. As it happens, Hamas is an ideological sibling -- or, better yet, child -- of the Muslim Brotherhood which has been trying to overthrow the Cairo government for decades...and decades.

Of course, this sets Hamas at odds with Cairo, violently at odds. The first moments were peaceful, even frolicsome. Now, reality has set in. There will be skirmishes over the lines that separate Gaza from the Sinai. But the Egyptians don't have the fortitude to (re)build a wall that Israel built or the discipline over the troops who guard the international border to keep the Palestinians kept. In any case, fighting has broken out since the commercial romp in the early dawn of buying and selling. Moreover, there are now actual shortages. So the conflict will be both ideological and practical.

The Israelis are actually hoping that Egypt will take over permanently the role Israel has played for years as the cross-point between Gaza and the world. Why should Israel be saddled with this responsibility? It is, for all intents and purposes and certainly in the eyes of the Palestinians, at war with Gaza, a circumstance that makes the relationship, let us say, dicey.

Now to a piece of the crap I alluded to in the beginning. The Boston Globe runs many gauzy articles about the Palestinians, especially op-eds and editorials. The most recent is one in which it accuses Israel of putting a "stranglehold on Gaza" by cutting the Strip's daily requirement of 680,000 tons of flour to 90 tons, and that even before its last embargo on certain supplies.

A distinguished Harvard University scholar in Middle Eastern affairs at the Olin Institute, Martin Kramer, has analyzed this accusation which, if it is correct, means that before Israel imposed its oh, so cruel stranglehold on the poor Gazans, they each ate half a ton of flour per day. This, of course, is preposterous. So what is the story?

Kramer writes about this on his own web-site, Sandbox, where the tale is told today.

Gaza buried in flour
The Boston Globe has just run an op-ed under the headline "Ending the Stranglehold on Gaza." The authors are Eyad al-Sarraj, identified as founder of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, and Sara Roy, identified as senior research scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. The bias of the op-ed speaks for itself, and I won't even dwell on it. But I do want to call attention to this sentence:
Although Gaza daily requires 680,000 tons of flour to feed its population, Israel had cut this to 90 tons per day by November 2007, a reduction of 99 percent.
You don't need to be a math genius to figure out that if Gaza has a population of 1.5 million, as the authors also note, then 680,000 tons of flour a day come out to almost half a ton of flour per Gazan, per day.

A typographical error at the Boston Globe? Hardly. The two authors used the same "statistic" in an earlier piece. They copied it from an article published in the Ahram Weekly last November, which reported that "the price of a bag of flour has risen 80 per cent, because of the 680,000 tonnes the Gaza Strip needs daily, only 90 tonnes are permitted to enter." Sarraj and Roy added the bit about this being "a reduction of 99 percent."

Note how an absurd and impossible "statistic" has made its way up the media feeding chain. It begins in an Egyptian newspaper, is cycled through a Palestinian activist, is submitted under the shared byline of a Harvard "research scholar," and finally appears in the Boston Globe, whose editors apparently can't do basic math. Now, in a viral contagion, this spreads across the Internet, where that "reduction of 99 percent" becomes a well-attested fact.

What's the truth? I see from a 2007 UN document that Gaza consumes 450 tons of flour daily. The Palestinian Ministry of Economy, according to another source, puts daily consumption at 350 tons. So the figure for total consumption retailed by Sarraj and Roy is off by more than three orders of magnitude, i.e. a factor of 1,000. No doubt, there's less flour shipped from Israel into Gaza--maybe it's those rocket barrages from Gaza into Israel?--but even if it's only the 90 tons claimed by Sarraj and Roy, it isn't anything near a "reduction of 99 percent." Unfortunately, if readers are going to remember one dramatic "statistic" from this op-ed, this one is it--and it's a lie.

Sarraj is a psychiatrist, but his co-author, Sara Roy, bills herself in her bio as a "political economist." Her research, the bio reports, is "primarily on the economic, social and political development of the Gaza Strip." You would think someone with this claim to expertise would know better than to copy some impossible pseudo-statistic on the consumption of the most basic foodstuff in Gaza. Indeed, in a piece she wrote a decade ago, she herself put Gaza's daily consumption of flour at 275 tons. Did she even read her own op-ed before she sent it off to Boston's leading paper? If she did, what we have here is a textbook example of the difference between a "political economist" and an economist.

And while you are reading this piece of Kramer's surgical prose, you might as well read a few of his other essayistic blogs.