At Season End, Future Dims for Gaza Harvest Project

A grand farming plan that once symbolised the hope of Gaza's 1.4 million people after 38 years of occupation, is no more than piles of sweet peppers and strawberries rotting in the searing Gaza sun.

GAZA — When thousands of Israeli settlers were pulled out of Gaza last year, one of the bright spots on the horizon for Palestinians was, oddly enough, vegetables.

But nine months on, a grand farming plan that symbolised the hope of Gaza's 1.4 million people after 38 years of occupation, is no more than piles of sweet peppers and strawberries rotting in the searing Gaza sun.

The project, backed by the former head of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, involved paying settlers compensation for the vast fruit and vegetable greenhouses they ran so they could be used to start a business for Palestinians instead.

Around $30 million was invested in the scheme, known as the Gaza Agricultural Project, which investors hoped would help turn Gaza into a model for a future Palestinian state.

Despite some looting by Palestinians after the pullout, the project eventually got on track and was expected to generate $20 million in revenues in the first year from the export of cherry tomatoes, peppers and strawberries to European markets.

The first season officially finished on May 31 and Ayed Abu Ramadan, the executive manager, is a very disappointed man.

"From an investment point of view, it may be a total failure," he said the day before the season closed. "I don't know if there are words to describe how frustrated we feel."

The problem, in essence, has been a near complete inability to export the produce from Gaza into Israel because of the frequent closure of Gaza's border by Israeli authorities.

The Karni crossing, the point through which almost all trade between Israel and Gaza has to pass, has been closed for 57 days this year, or around 40 percent of the time, according to Israel, which says it shuts the border due to security threats.

Even on the days when the border is open, it is often only partially so, with many more truckloads going in than leaving.


The closures, which intensified after Hamas won Palestinian elections in January, almost entirely mirror the December-to-May harvest and export season for Gaza's fruit and vegetables.

In that, Abu Ramadan sees design, pointing out that when prices for crops were highest in Europe, and Gaza's production was strongest, the Israelis kept the border closed.

Israeli fruit and vegetable producers compete in the same market the Palestinians were entering.

"I think they wanted us to fail," he said. "It's part of the economic and psychological war. They didn't want to pull out and allow the Palestinians to succeed."

Israeli border authorities dismiss such suggestions, saying their decisions are based entirely on security threats.

In its first season, Abu Ramadan says less than 10 percent of the project's produce was exported -- the rest, sometimes 120 tonnes a day, had to be dumped and left to rot for animal feed at a loss of up to $100,000 a day.

The project's 4,500 labourers are devastated, says Abu Ramadan, highlighting the social as well as the economic cost.

Despite the setbacks, the Palestinian Investment Fund is expected to finance the project for another season.

"We will have another ago," said Abu Ramadan. "So many people depend on the project that we have to try. But without free access to international markets there's nothing we can do."

Source: Reuters

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