Monday 16 February 2009 (21 Safar 1430)

      The Dutch say it with flowers
      Khaled Diab | The Guardian 
      Valentine's Day - that festival of naff consumerism and kitsch 
infatuation - is not an occasion close to my 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 felt a little more charitable toward old St. Valentine 
after he made a foray into the Middle East. While Gazans, living amid the 
rubble of the recent Israeli invasion, were unlikely to be celebrating 
Valentine's Day this year, the festival marked a small step toward breaking the 
siege under which they live. In a literal 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 cooperation," 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 flower farms across the Gaza Strip, and 
they employ some 7,000 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?" one despondent farmer said last 
year. The Gaza Flower Growers' Association estimates that the Strip used to 
export about 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 that Israel's longstanding 
blockade has triggered. Now it's time for Israel to realize that showing a 
little bit of love for Valentine's Day was not enough; it, and the 
international community, must break the stranglehold on Gaza and end the 
embargo. Likewise, Egypt must open its border crossing too.

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