Living in Gaza is a singularly unique existence. The 141 square mile strip of land, surrounded on all sides by the Mediterranean, Egypt and Israel, is a crowded cauldron of over 1.8 million people, defined by their isolation from the rest of the Palestinian National Authority and rigorous external controls. Ostensibly run by the controversial Islamist organisation Hamas, Gaza is strictly monitored by both Egypt and Israel, the latter of whom exercise control over the area’s airspace and maintain a blockade over the region’s borders, carefully monitoring everything that goes in and out. This, understandably, affects every area of life but especially affects food.
Thanks to both the blockade and the frequent, devastating conflicts that affect the region, finding enough food to survive is often not a given. Many residents rely almost entirely on aid from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides basic food baskets whenever possible. Laws over what can and can’t be legally brought over the border between Israel or Egypt are incredibly stringent and may change at a moment’s notice.
But if the history of authoritarianism tells us anything, it’s that when people really want something, it’s almost impossible to completely prevent it. The situation in Gaza is no exception. Border controls make it incredibly difficult for many things to legally make it across. But outside of the law, it is a different situation. It is on these fringes that some enterprising Gazans have been making a living by smuggling Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Back in 2013, The New York Times broke the story of an ingenious Palestinian businessman who was utilising a network of underground tunnels to bring the people of Gaza bucketloads of the Colonel’s signature recipe chicken. Khalil Efrangi, who was then 31, decided to capitalise on an already extensive smuggling network and supply something that he felt should be the birthright of every food lover. Using a complicated system of political contacts, telephone calls, wire transfers and underground operatives, Efrangi made his name as the area’s go-to man when it came to finger-lickin' food. It didn’t take long before Gaza was flooded with contraband poultry.
Due to the undercover element, Efrangi’s system was fast food in name only. Orders were placed at the nearest franchise, across the Egyptian border in the small town of Al Arish, before making two taxi trips, a subterranean border crossing and finally a motorbike journey into Gaza. The entire process could take as long as four hours and could cost as much as $27 for a 12-piece bucket.
However, while the system may not have the original affordable elegance of the all-American franchise, Efrangi’s success spoke for itself. According to his interview with The New York Times, at his height he was coordinating around 100 separate deliveries every week, making around $6 on each individual meal. In a region where unemployment is estimated at anywhere between 30 to 40 per cent, these are not numbers to be sniffed at. It may take a covert tunnelling network, but the effort was undeniably worth it.
Unsurprisingly, KFC, like much American fast food, has had a somewhat turbulent history in the Middle East. Although the chain currently operates six separate franchises in the West Bank, it has never enjoyed success over the border in Israel, where it has been unable to compete with other big beasts like McDonald’s.
By contrast, not only are the famous fast food behemoths seen by some as emblems of American imperialism and tacit support for Israel, but franchises looking to establish themselves in Palestine have found it difficult to go through Israeli authorities. While the customer base may well be ravenous, the legal and political issues have made fast food expansion trickier than it otherwise would be.
When the story of the extensive KFC smuggling operation first broke six years ago, it made headlines around the world. Readers were struck by how the tunnels were used not just for chicken, but for goods including firearms, luxury cars and everything in between. However, things would not remain so simple for Gazan smugglers.
In 2015, Egyptian authorities decided to crack down on illegal border crossings, carrying out a range of tunnel demolitions and severely limiting the number of meals that could make it across. Though there has been no official word on how this turn of events has affected the contraband KFC business, reports on entrepreneurs like Efrangi have been few and far between since the crackdown.
Gaza’s KFC smuggling heyday may have come to an end. However, even if wings and burgers are no longer being couriered by the bucketload, the story still serves to remind us how food can be one of the most powerful motivators we have.
As Efrangi told New York Times reporters, “I accepted this challenge to prove that Gazans can be resilient despite the restrictions,” highlighting how the hunt for something tasty can transcend even the most complicated of international conflicts.
This remains as true now as it was then. You can do everything in your power to isolate people, but they will always find ways to connect with the rest of the world - whether it’s by sneaking over the border, or tucking into the Colonel.