‘Small luxuries’ taken away from Gazans amid border trouble

Al-Yamama delivery company is looking back nostalgically on its days of delivering Egyptian KFC

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It was the publicity stunt of the year in Hamas-ruled Gaza: the delivery of Kentucky Fried Chicken from a branch in Egypt through a tunnel under their shared border.

But since the service was launched in spring, the Hamas-friendly Egyptian government of Mohamed Mursi has been toppled in an army coup.

And since then, Egypt's military has destroyed hundreds of the tunnels, sending the takeaway orders into free-fall with the rest of Gaza's economy, already squeezed by trade restrictions imposed by its other neighbor, Israel.

In Rafah, the sprawling city which straddles the Gaza-Egypt border, the dust raised by hectic smuggling activity has settled in the wake of the Egyptian army's campaign against the tunnels.

Just a few scattered diggers are working under tarpaulins covering the entrances to abandoned tunnels, excavating “for the future”.

“Is there a future for tunnels? Not with Sisi,” sighs a Gazan border police officer, referring to Egyptian military chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

The flow of state-subsidized Egyptian fuel to Gaza has all but dried up since the July coup, dwindling from about a million liters a day in June to 10,000-20,000 liters a week now, according to the latest report of the U.N. Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The shortage caused the shutdown on November 1 of the Palestinian territory's only power plant, which provided about a third of the strip's electricity.

The closure has resulted in power cuts for 16 hours a day.

Without electricity, water treatment stations have stopped working, and last week sewage began spilling onto the streets of several neighborhoods in Gaza City.

Now the Al-Yamama delivery company is looking back nostalgically on its days of delivering Egyptian KFC.

“Despite the high prices because of transport costs, people paid to have something that does not exist here,” said Haitham al-Shami, a 29-year-old partner in the business.

“It was a challenge,” he said, “to show that Gaza is not only war and death. We love life, but we have nothing.”

‘Ketchup and mayonnaise’

His subterranean fast food service, largely conceived to promote Al-Yamama's business, lasted only a month before being banned by Hamas “for public health reasons” even before the tunnel crackdown, Shami said.

According to Palestinian economist Omar Shaaban, Gazans had developed a taste for small luxuries, which Israeli and Egyptian restrictions have taken away again.

“Gaza is a modern society. People in Gaza know Nescafe and cappuccino and these products,” he said.

“Now we have become a relief society -- we depend on international humanitarian assistance for food.”

Israel first imposed its land, sea and air blockade on the coastal strip in 2006 after militants there seized an Israeli soldier, who was eventually freed in a lop-sided prisoner swap in 2011.

It was further tightened in mid-2007 when the Islamic militant group Hamas took control of Gaza.

Israel eased the blockade slightly following an international outcry after its botched commando raid on a Turkish Gaza-bound flotilla in 2010, allowing food and some building materials to be trucked in.

“The siege destroyed the industrial productive sector, the siege prevented any export from Gaza, only five or six items were allowed,” said Shaban, director of local think-tank Palthink.

“We're not suffering because of a lack of rain or because we don't have food. It's a man-made catastrophe, because somebody decided to make our life difficult,” he added.

“We are a hostage by four kidnappers,” he said, naming Israel, Hamas, the Western-backed Palestinian Authority which rules the West Bank, and the international community.

Palestinian negotiator Mohammed Shtayyeh wrote last month in left-leaning Israeli daily Haaretz that token Israeli economic measures would not change the Palestinians' lives.

“In recent years, some international parties have tried to convince the world that solutions begin by removing a roadblock or allowing ketchup and mayonnaise into Gaza,” he said.

“What Palestine needs is ending the Israeli occupation, which is the only way for Palestine to reach its full economic potential.”

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