Tater plotsTater plots

Buy potatoes for peace

Gershon Baskin, one of the negotiators responsible for Gilad Shalit deal, raises $93,000 to transfer Israeli spuds to Gaza

Debra writes for the JTA, and is a former features writer for The Times of Israel.

Israeli potatoes in Jerusalem, March 2007 (photo credit: Orel Cohen/Flash90)
Israeli potatoes in Jerusalem, March 2007 (photo credit: Orel Cohen/Flash90)

An Israeli-Palestinian peace activist has had a new focus this past week: potatoes.

Gershon Baskin, the founder and co-chair of the Israeli/Palestine Center for Research and Information and one of the negotiators responsible for securing the release of Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit in 2011, was contacted last week by agriculturalist Hillel Adiri, who had an idea: The Israeli Vegetable Growers’ Association had a surplus of nearly 5,000 tons of potatoes, and as part of Israeli agricultural law, they would be paid .50 NIS per kilo to destroy the surplus by Sunday in order to make room in the market for fresh crops.

Rather than let the farmers be paid to destroy their potatoes, why not buy them at the exact same price and then donate them to Gaza?

The idea, Baskin says, was a win-win for everyone. In Israel, the farmers couldn’t sell the potatoes, because it would flood the market and cause a massive slash in prices. The farmers would collect the same payout that they would otherwise be guaranteed by Israeli law, which offers the fee of NIS .50 per kilo in order to protect them from market conditions just like this one. And in Gaza, where there is no bumper crop of potatoes – indeed, acres upon acres of farmland have been destroyed in the month-long battle between Israel and Hamas – hungry civilians would receive food aid.

Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin, November 14, 2012 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
Gershon Baskin (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

Baskin did the math and realized it would cost $730,000 to purchase all 5,000 tons of potatoes at the rate of NIS .50 per kilo and ship them to Gaza. He posted on both Facebook and Twitter and was, he says, pleasantly surprised by the flood of responses.

“Within minutes I got 20 or 30 emails from people who said they were willing to contribute,” he says. “So I just said, yalla, let’s do one of those crowd-sourcing campaigns.”

By Sunday, which was the campaign’s deadline, Baskin had only scratched at his goal, raising $78,861. Two additional donors made private offers of $10,000 and $5,000, respectively, bringing the grand total to $93,861.

Despite not reaching his goal, Baskin said he was moved by the campaign, and determined now to overcome the many bureaucratic hurdles that stand between him and the actual delivery of the potatoes to people on the ground.

“It was all kinds of people,” he says of the donors. “There were a lot of Jews, both in Israel and American and Britain.”

He posted a full rundown of the donors’ countries of origin, and the amounts raised, on his Facebook page.

Now he is working the phone to figure out how to transfer the potatoes to two separate international organizations on the ground, both of which, he requested, remain anonymous until the deal is complete. He has already secured a 20 percent discount from the Farmers’ Association, which will allow him to buy more potatoes that he had originally bargained for, and now is ironing out kinks with Israel’s civil administration to clear the transfer and delivery of the spuds through the Kerem Shalom Crossing.

Once they are trucked into Gaza, there will be other details to figure out: how to deliver the potatoes, and to whom; how to make sure they are properly handled and how to get them cleaned and cooked in a population where many are living in shelters without proper kitchens.

Should bureaucracy prove particularly unyielding, Baskin does have a backup plan: to pass the potatoes to the head of one of the agricultural properties in Gaza and let him handle distribution. But for now, he prefers to work the more conventional channels.

“The hard part is dealing with the logistics,” he says. “It’s frustrating because I am just waiting for people to give me answers… but it’s not going to fall through. We’ll get them the potatoes.”

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