Gaza’s strawberries spoil under siege

Abdulfattah al-Khateeb struggles to farm strawberries under the Israeli-imposed closure. (PCHR)

The northern Gaza Strip area of Beit Lahiya is famous for its agriculture. The climate, the sandy clay soil and the fresh water supply create an ideal environment for growing fruit here, and the practice has become a deeply-engrained way of life for Beit Lahiya farmers like Abdulfattah al-Khateeb, who has been growing strawberries here for more than 25 years. Although the Gaza Strip is amongst the most densely-populated places on earth, here luscious green fields spread out in vast tracts. Yet it is clear that as Abdulfattah gazes out onto his land his minds is troubled: Abdulfattah’s concern is unique in that it is not with growing his crops, but rather whether his crops will be able to reach the market once they are grown.

In order to realize even a modest profit, Abdulfattah must sell his strawberries in the West Bank, Israel and Europe, as he did for over 20 years. Since 2007, however, Israel has enforced a complete and continuous closure of all border crossings into and out of the Gaza Strip, effectively cutting the coastal territory off from the rest of the world. Now, like the countless tons of his strawberries which have since been left to rot while waiting in vain at the Israeli border, he fears that his business and his livelihood may perish as a result of the closure.

Before the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip in 1967, this area was so renowned for its citrus production that the fruit produced here was known throughout Palestine as “yellow gold.” Under the control of Israel, however, itself a major citrus producer, farmers in Beit Lahiya and throughout Gaza were forced to abandon their crops — many orange groves were bulldozed by Israeli forces — and instead grow flowers and strawberries and other crops that adhere to Israel’s “security concerns.” The Beit Lahiya farmers adapted, and soon they were producing strawberries of such a high quality that their fruit was being exported to Israel, the West Bank and upscale retailers in Europe; they are “the best strawberries in the world,” according to Abdulfattah, who also used to head the Beit Lahiya Strawberry Farmers Society.

Now, however, Abdulfattah and other farmers in Gaza are being forced by Israel to abandon their crops yet again, although this time there is no recourse in shifting production to another, “safer,” fruit or vegetable. Under the current form of the illegal Israeli-imposed closure, farmers in Gaza can no longer export their produce outside the Gaza Strip, and they are facing further restrictions on the types and amounts of products they can grow. The effects have been disastrous. Before the imposition of the total closure of the Gaza Strip on 14 June 2007 — itself only a more stringent form of a closure policy in place since the early 1990s — the Gaza Strip produced almost 400,000 tons of agricultural products annually, one third of which was intended for export. Despite the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which set a target for exports for Gaza at 400 trucks per day, only 259 trucks have left the Gaza Strip with goods in the last three years. Accordingly, since 2007, farmers in Gaza have reported a 40 percent decrease in income: in 2008 alone, farmers in the Gaza Strip lost an estimated US $6.5 million.

Without the ability to export their products to markets in the West Bank, Israel and Europe, farmers like Abdulfattah face a domestic market for agriculture characterized by artificially inflated supply, which in turn drives prices so low that Abdulfattah says he cannot survive on them: “Before 2007, one kilogram of strawberries used to cost 24 shekels on the Gaza market; now it only costs three. I can hardly continue my life with prices so low. I have to live from season-to-season, hoping that I can get good prices or maybe export some goods, and since 2007 I am forced to rely on handouts and aid,” says Abdulfattah.

At the same time, Abdulfattah is facing greater restrictions imposed by the Israeli government on his farming operation in Beit Lahiya, which contribute to rising costs of production. “The Israelis tell us how and what to plant, what to use to plant it, and where the plants we use must come from,” explains Abdulfattah. “We are forced to use Israeli strawberry plants, even though they are more expensive [15 shekels as opposed to four shekels for Palestinian plants] and not as good [as the Palestinian plants which produced the famous Gazan strawberries]. But we use them anyways, and we even obtain the certificate that proves it, which is expensive. Even though we follow all the specifications, the Israelis don’t let our strawberries pass through the border.” Encapsulating the plight of all farmers in Gaza under Israeli occupation, Abdulfattah adds emphatically: “when we do what the Israelis want, they just create another problem.”

The consequences of the closure for farmers like Abdulfattah are more than just tough economic times: the closure threatens their livelihoods and way of life. Approximately 2,500 dunams (a dunam is the equivalent of 1,000 square meters) of land were planted with strawberry fields before 2007; this year some 1,500 remain unplanted, representing at least 300 families who will be without an income for the year. More than likely, these families will be forced to give up strawberry cultivation; half of all strawberry farmers in Gaza have already done so. Some of them will find other work, but — with unemployment in the Gaza Strip approaching 55 percent — others will surely not.

Indeed the Israel policy towards strawberry farming in Gaza, and particularly their exports, is a demonstration in the economics of occupation. The crops permitted to grow in Gaza are directly linked to the crops produced by Israel. Because of their quality — and the high consumer demand this quality creates — agricultural products from the Gaza Strip, like strawberries, are not allowed to compete with Israeli products in the Israeli markets or in markets abroad. At the same time, surplus agricultural goods produced in Israel are pushed onto the market in Gaza, further driving down prices for local farmers.

Making matters significantly worse for farmers in the Gaza Strip are the consequences of the latest Israeli military offensive, which destroyed approximately 46 percent of all agricultural lands in the Gaza Strip, estimated at approximately $269,000,000 in damages, and over $84,000,000 in damages to plant production, specifically. Not only have farmers received no compensation from the perpetrators of the damage, but Israel prevents the entry of farming equipment and machinery needed in order to rehabilitate the land.

On 4 July, the Israeli government formally announced an “easing” of the border crossings into the Gaza Strip in response to the international condemnation of the 31 May attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. While there will be an increase in the type and amount of goods that are allowed into Gaza under the new arrangement, the issue of exports remains ignored. For Abdulfattah, thus, the new restrictions represent only a marginal change in the modalities of the occupation that is suffocating his business and his way of life: “I expect nothing new [from the new Israeli policy]. Even if the Israelis decided to allow exports, I probably would not be able to follow the new restrictions they would invent for me to do so,” Abdulfattah explains, “but it won’t open anyways.”

This report is part of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights’ Narratives Under Siege series.