Gaza: Flowers, Strawberries, and Missiles

BEIT LAHIYA, Gaza - Just 300 yards from the hidden eyes in the Israeli tank, Ahmed Felfel picks his strawberries. But it isn't the Israelis in the tank who worry him as much as those others who will not let him sell them.

Earlier, it was flowers grown in Gaza and then fed to camels because the Israeli blockade would not let them through. Now it is strawberries grown and wasted.

It is Gaza's irony that the most desperate conditions produce some of the finest people seek. Nature itself has been kind to Gaza; the soil is rich, there is plenty of sunshine, and predictable rainfall. All that produces strawberries of a quality that the best restaurants in Europe like to serve.

After Gaza elected Hamas, Israel moved swiftly with U.S. backing to isolate the 23-mile long strip of land with Israel on one side and the Mediterranean on the other. It's a siege that will not let even flowers and strawberries through.

"I am alive but I feel dead," says Ahmed Felfel. He is expecting losses of 35,000 to 45,000 dollars as a result of the Israeli blockade. That is above more direct losses. "Israeli tanks and bulldozers demolished my irrigation system, my greenhouses, my equipment."

Beit Lahiya is close to the Israeli border, and just a few miles from the Israeli town Siderot which has been within reach of home-made rockets fired from within Gaza. Israel, in turn, has launched deadly missile attacks on Gaza.

The Israelis come in and simply bulldoze any place they think can hide a launching pad for rockets. When they find nothing, no compensation is offered.

In an average year, Gaza's 6,000 strawberry farmers harvest nearly 2,000 tonnes of the fruit that sell altogether for about 10 million dollars. Two-thirds is normally shipped out through Agrexco, the agriculture exchange half-owned by the Israeli government that Gaza's fruit and flower growers are required to use.

In November two trucks carrying flowers and six carrying strawberries were allowed through by the Israelis. Then the blockade came down again.

Agrexco vice-president Malachy J. Malinovich has said "Palestinian producers have decided not to continue shipping." That could be partly true, because many Palestinian farmers have decided not to grow fruits and flowers rather than spend all that time and money only to see their produce rot.

Ahmed al-Shafi, director of Gaza's Agriculture Cooperative, says that one shipment of 12 tonnes of strawberries was destroyed in December last year because it was held up at the Karem Shalom crossing (Hebrew for what the Palestinians call Karm Abu Salem).

Gaza has an airport and sea port, but Israel prevents their use. On the other hand the border crossing at Rafah into Egypt is sealed by Egypt, under heavy U.S. pressure.

"We used to sell a kilo of strawberries for 4.50 dollars," says al-Shafi. "Now it sells for 50 cents here."

Two years ago, he said, 40 to 45 tonnes of strawberries were exported from Gaza daily in season. This year, no more than 100 tonnes have been exported so far.

And this may do long-term damage. Europe could simply get used to importing from elsewhere. And Gaza could face an "emigration of experience" because the best farmers are heading out to Egypt.

Al-Shafi has been privileged enough to be allowed out of Gaza. He has spoken to EU representatives and to U.S. officials in Tel Aviv. "We Palestinians and Israelis are neighbours and farmers," he said. "We should seek a way to co-exist."

Particularly now, and particularly Israelis. It's the year of Shimita that comes every seven years, when Orthodox Jews are required to eat foods produced by non-Jewish sources. Some, at least, of the Israeli blockade is against Israelis.

(c) 2008 Inter Press Service

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