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  • Pop! Went the Tale of the Bubble Gum Spiked With Sex Hormones

    A Palestinian official displays some gum/TWP
    Barton Gellman—TWP
    Palestinian public health official Jabbar Tibi shows Israeli bubble gum thought to contain stimulants.
    By Barton Gellman
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Monday, July 28, 1997; Page A14

    GAZA CITY—The Israeli plot, as Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority exposed it recently, was triply diabolical.

    To begin with, it aroused irresistible sexual appetites in women, undermining Islamic morals and self-restraint. Then it sterilized them to suppress Arab population growth. Worst of all, according to Palestinian Supply Minister Abdel Aziz Shaheen, it was capable of "completely destroying the genetic system of young boys."

    All that with packets of bubble gum. Palestinian officials maintain, having subjected the gum to laboratory tests, that it is spiked with sex hormones and sold at suspiciously low prices near schoolhouses in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Variations of the story, blending pseudo-science with inventive tales of conspiracy by Israel's secret services, have been making the rounds of the official Palestinian media for weeks.

    Promoted at the highest levels of the Palestinian Authority, the story recalls a propaganda style that Palestinians largely abandoned after their first accord with Israel in 1993. It is one among many recent signs that after months of stagnation in peace talks, the process of accommodation is falling into decay.

    Israel, too, devotes substantial efforts these days to discrediting its ostensible negotiating partner. David Bar-Illan, director of communications for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, has described the government as engaged in a full-scale propaganda war, and he does his part with periodic faxes to foreign reporters about unattractive or allegedly unlawful Palestinian behavior.

    Moreover, a tale of adulterated food is not entirely implausible. There is substantial evidence that unscrupulous Israeli merchants, working in cahoots with Palestinian profiteers, sent tons of spoiled flour to the West Bank and Gaza last spring. And large quantities of canned baby food, shipped from Israel to Gaza under the label of the Milk Industries Group in Afula, Israel, turned out to be relabeled soy formula whose expiration date had passed.

    The chewing gum tale, though, is something else. It joins a number of Arab fantasies that play off Israel's links to the West -- and therefore the menacing mystique of Western sexuality -- resonating from the Koranic warning against Satan as "the insidious tempter who whispers in the hearts of men."

    "Satan is not a conqueror, not an imperialist, not a capitalist, not an exploiter," Bernard Lewis, professor emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, wrote in Foreign Affairs earlier this year. "He is a seducer. He comes with Barbie dolls and cocktails and provocative TV programs and movies and, worst of all, emancipated women."

    In this case, Palestinians allege, Israel came with strawberry-flavored chewing gum laced with progesterone, one of the two hormones of femaleness. The hormone, they say inaccurately, drives women wild with desire and serves as contraceptive, too -- corrupting Arab women while ensuring they cannot reproduce.

    According to officials in Gaza, the gum was first spotted at a convenience store run by Riyadh Younis Daoud. There were several varieties, each of which came with stickers inside: "The Legend of Pocahontas," "Aladdin and the Magic Lamp," "Thunder in Paradise" and others.

    Because Pocahontas had rather a sultry look, and because the gum's Spanish manufacturer mistakenly had put the words "adults over 18" on some of the wrappers, Palestinian inspectors seized Daoud's entire supply and brought it to Abdel Jabbar Tibi.

    Tibi, director of public health in the Palestinian Health Ministry, said he immediately "suspected there would be something related to hormones or sex."

    "We are very open-eyed regarding things coming into our borders, especially from Israel," he said. "We expect many things."

    Tibi and others remembered a furor over Israeli chewing gum a year ago in Egypt, where a maverick legislator and a sensational newspaper, al-Ahrar, first put forward the hypothesis of an Israeli plot to put progesterone in gum -- a brand that appeared to have been made in Germany. The Palestinian Authority therefore commissioned a test at Cairo's Food Technology and Research Institute, and the institute reported that it had found progesterone.

    "This chewing gum causes sterility and stimulates sex. This is proved. This is scientifically proved," said Salah Waheedi, a Supply Ministry official, displaying a binder full of correspondence on the subject.

    The story grew with the retelling. Shaheen contended that the gum was subsidized to ensure its penetration into the Palestinian marketplace, selling for less than a penny apiece. He also said that it was sold "only at the gates of primary schools or kindergartens," because Israelis "want to destroy our genetic system" by giving sex hormones to children before their bodies can cope with them.

    Shaheen said the authority seized 154 pieces of the suspect gum. By the time the story reached Hebron in the West Bank, local health official Mahmoud Batarna was saying he had captured 200 tons of the stuff in his city alone. His theory about the gum differed from Shaheen's: Rather than ruining children, he said, Israel sought to turn Palestinian women into prostitutes, with the goal of making them easier to enlist as informants for its Shin Bet security service.

    As for the fact that the gum is made in Spain, said Marwan Zaem, a physician and spokesman for the Health Ministry, "These are agents of Israel. I do not know if it is contaminated there or contaminated somewhere else."

    The Washington Post commissioned a test of allegedly contaminated chewing gum provided by Palestinian health officials.

    Dan Gibson, professor of pharmaceutical chemistry at Hebrew University and a member of the left-wing lobby group Peace Now, said that, using a mass spectrometer capable of detecting as little as a microgram of progesterone, he found none in the gum. When used as a contraceptive pill, according to a standard physician's reference, the effective dose is about 300 times larger than a microgram.

    In practice, the body rapidly inactivates progesterone taken by mouth. Birth control pills normally rely on synthetic compounds known as progestins or progestogens that are similar but not identical. These oral contraceptives, according to Stanley G. Korenman, the head of endocrinology at the Center for the Health Sciences of the University of California at Los Angeles, generally diminish female libido rather than increase it, although the effects in either direction are not dramatic.

    In men, progestins are powerful inhibitors of sperm production. They also impair libido and the ability to maintain an erection.

    But whatever the science, the politics are clear. Most Palestinians interviewed had heard of the gum, and even the most worldly tended to say they believed accounts of its evil powers.

    "Why not? This is a war," said Awni Hasham, 58, who owns a furniture company and has traveled often to Israel and abroad. "If they can put a spaceship on Mars, they can make sex chewing gum."

    Staff writer David Brown in Washington contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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