Erin Cunningham
The National
January 20, 2010 - 1:00am

In a rare easing of its now 18-month-long economic blockade on the Gaza Strip, Israel is allowing a limited amount of produce and fresh-cut flowers to be exported from the territory this season , including one of its most important cash crops, the Gaza strawberry.

Over the past two harvesting seasons, from late November to early March, Gaza’s approximately 450 strawberry farmers were forced to either allow their crops to rot or feed them to livestock. Some of the fields, grown on hilltops in the north and used by Palestinian militants to fire rockets at Israel, were razed by Israeli forces in last year’s war.

“Last year, we lost seven dunams [0.7 hectares] of strawberries to the blockade,” said Mahmoud Abu Halima, 70, a strawberry farmer for decades in the territory’s northern town of Beit Lahiya. “This was our land for centuries and now we can do nothing with it.”

Israel and Egypt sealed the enclave’s borders to all commercial imports and exports when Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007, devastating the economy and crippling Gaza’s historic and once-fruitful agricultural sector.

According to the United Nations Environmental Programme, 17 per cent of Gaza’s 30,000 dunams of cultivable land was destroyed during Israel’s three-week military operation in the territory last winter. Estimates by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) put total losses to the agricultural sector at US$268 million (Dh985m), and farmers cannot recover because of an Israeli ban on the import of such crucial materials as fertiliser, seeds, irrigation pipes and plastic sheeting for greenhouses.

Gaza’s strawberries are grown on 2,220 dunams of land, according to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, with the industry creating 2,000 direct and indirect jobs.

“The situation for farmers in general is very bad,” said Mohammed al Shatali, the project manager at the FAO office in Gaza. “Fertilisers aren’t allowed in – there is no food security, no income. We need to be able to rehabilitate the land so people can live normal lives. Right now, they are just surviving.”

Gaza rose to prominence as a flourishing agricultural centre under Nabataean rule more than 2,000 years ago, after its leaders developed sophisticated irrigation techniques and created along the coast a shallow, fertile valley from which to grow and export produce.

The enclave maintained its position as strategic distribution centre through the Roman and Byzantine eras and well into the rule of the Ottoman empire, growing, trading and exporting everything from dates, figs, olives and lentils to pine nuts, barley, artichokes and citrus fruit.

Gaza’s farmers were then forced to cease the planting of citrus trees after Israel’s takeover in 1967 because Israel itself is a major citrus producer. With the coastal enclave’s mild Mediterranean climate, the farmers found refuge in the planting and production of fresh-cut flowers and sweet-tasting, low-pesticide strawberries.

“You see the clay in the soil, it is perfect for strawberries. And there is no humidity,” Mr Abu Halima’s son, Ahmed, said, picking up a handful of dirt and moving the soil between his fingers. “The Israelis destroy our land again and again, but it is still here, and it is still good.”

The Abu Halimas admit their fields in Beit Lahiya were razed over the years – and even during the last war – because militants fire rockets from their land, from which you can see Israeli towns. But they are trying to keep the fighters at bay, he said.

Israel’s decision to allow a limited export of strawberries is a result of intense lobbying by the Dutch government, according to local agricultural officials. But the ruling, which allowed exports to begin through the Kerem Abu Salim crossing on January 3, is too little, too late, farmers say.

“In a normal year, we would begin exporting in mid-November, because the season ends in February,” said Yusuf Shaath, the project manager for cash crops at the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees (Parc), a local development organisation that works closely with Gaza’s farmers. “So we missed more than a month of exports, meaning farmers lost around 40 per cent in terms of quantity and 70 per cent in terms of income.”

So far, Gaza’s strawberry farmers have exported 42 tonnes out of the 300 tonnes expected to be sent abroad by the end of February. If the borders were open, Mr Shaath said, 750 tonnes would go to lucrative European markets, raking in some US$10 million (Dh36.7m) for the sector.

The Abu Halimas have only exported 250kg of the two tonnes they have ready.

“The highest quality, and therefore the highest price, for strawberries is at the beginning of the season, which we lost totally,” Mr Shaath said. “Nobody is going to make any money from this – farmers will just minimise their losses.”

Now Gaza’s produce is exported to Europe through the Israeli agricultural exporter, Agrexco, partially owned by the Israeli government and which markets the goods as Palestinian under the brand-name Coral.

“We are not grateful to Israel or Agrexco for what they are doing,” Ahmed Abu Halima said. “Why should we? It is our right.”


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