Ayman Awkal’s flower farm is shrinking every year.
The 56-year-old farmer used to cultivate 60 dunums (60,000 square meters) of every imaginable kind of flower including roses, chrysanthemums, anemones and carnations before the Israeli blockade came into effect in 2007.
“Flowers have been the only source of livelihood for my family for many years,” he said.
Now, however, that livelihood has vanished. It is pointless, said Awkal, to continue growing flowers under Israel’s devastating blockade of the Gaza Strip. Flower exports used to go overseas. Now, that is impossible.
“I had to give up farming flowers and turn to vegetables even though they fail to make much profit. It is better than nothing,” Awkal said.
It is a significant problem for a farmer who used to turn a good profit selling to European markets, from where they were sold on worldwide. One flower could fetch one euro in Europe, and the demand was high because flowers grow all year round in Gaza’s mild coastal weather. For a while, Gaza’s flower industry enjoyed a moment of prosperity.
Now, Awkal cultivates flowers on only three dunums of his land and only for the local markets at local prices. Quality has suffered and demand is low.
Holland was the main export market for Gazan flowers. The country funded projects across Gaza to enable farmers to maintain their yields to European standards.
But Dutch support — which also included providing seeds — stopped three years ago.
According to a spokesperson for the Dutch Representative Office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, the Dutch government decided to end its support for flower cultivation for a number of reasons, among them that it was felt money could be better spent elsewhere, that flowers were too water intensive for Gaza and that priorities should lie with food security and therefore food crops.
But the head of Gaza’s committee of flower farmers, Ibrahim al-Dahbour, said Israeli-imposed constraints at Gaza’s crossings played a big role.
“Israel is effectively killing the flower industry in Gaza by preventing support from Holland and other countries with its closure policy,” he told The Electronic Intifada.
These restrictions, often in the form of long delays for “security” inspections, and no facilities to keep produce or flowers fresh and shaded, made exports precarious and has ultimately undercut a thriving industry.
According to al-Dahbour, Gaza grew less than 5 million flowers in 2012, down from production highs before 2004 of 60 to 80 million flowers a year. And the reduced production has resulted in less land being allocated for cultivating flowers.
“In the past, Gaza used to cultivate flowers on about 1,200 dunums. There were some 100 projects. Now less than 15 dunums are being used to grow flowers and they are produced with lower quality and only for the domestic market.”
With no exports to rely on, al-Dahbour said, flowers are simply too expensive to grow. He estimates the cost of cultivating one dunum of flowers to a suitable standard at $9,000. It is too costly for farmers who have had to turn to other crops, especially those in demand on the local market and outside the possible interference of Israeli restrictions.
Since Gazan flowers can be grown year round, they were exported to cover all traditional flower-giving occasions, from major holidays to Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and so on.
That in turn meant regular work. Just as Gaza’s flowers have wilted, so have an estimated 600 jobs after nearly a decade of severe Israeli export restrictions.
Issa Fawji ran one of the more famous flower farms in Gaza, in Rafah in the south. But the 25 dunums he devoted to growing flowers has now been given over to strawberries and other fruit.
“All these fields were covered in colors. I used to employ dozens of workers to care for the flowers and pick them by hand. Now nothing remains,” he said.
Fawji, 56, who has been in the flower business for nearly 40 years, said that when he was able to export the flowers — all exports from Gaza have to go through Israel — he and others would often see their crops held at the Kerem Shalom commercial crossing so long they would wither.
It was deliberate, he said.
“Even when it was still possible for us to export, the Israelis used to turn us back dozens of times so our flowers died,” he said.
All Gaza’s exporters need to go back and forth to Kerem Shalom where their goods and produce are carefully inspected by Israeli soldiers. For produce in particular, this could be disastrous, as cargos would be left out in all weather without shade or cover for long hours.
And the farmers bore the costs.
The perfect climate
When flower shipments were held too long, Fawji would be forced feed the wilted flowers to livestock. “It was my only choice,” he said.
Fawji also benefitted from Dutch support, though, he said, what had started as a Dutch-sponsored project covering 10 dunums in 2010 began to taper off quickly and ended in 2012.
He is keen for such support to start again and refuses to believe that European countries have surrendered to the Israeli blockade.
“The climate here is perfect for flowers,” he said. “Why not help us revive the industry?”
Isra Saleh el-Namey is a journalist based in Gaza.