No sweet relief for Gaza watermelon farmers

A smiling young boy eats a slice of watermelon

A staple during Gaza’s hot summer, watermelon is increasingly out of reach for consumers.

Ezz Zanoun APA images

When Ghassan Salem tries to think of a treat for his children, watermelon is the first thing that springs to mind.

A big sweet juicy watermelon is the perfect antidote to the sweltering summer heat in Gaza.

But to his great consternation, the father of six now finds, along with most other Palestinians in Gaza, that watermelon, once a common treat on Gazan tables and one grown locally, has become prohibitively expensive.

What started out as an attempt by authorities to minimize Gaza’s dependence on Israeli products has had the unexpected result of raising prices, lowering production and causing tensions between local farmers and the authorities as the latter have had to turn back to Israeli imports to manage supply.

Ordinary consumers have been paying the price.

“If I want to buy a watermelon for my family, I cannot afford anything but a small one of around 4 kg that costs 10 shekels [approx $2.50]. This can never be enough for a family of eight,” Salem, 37, said.

Spending more than $10 to buy three or four watermelons for the family is too much for a government-employed teacher.

Under the Israeli blockade and with nearly a decade of political division between the West Bank and Gaza, government salaries are paid only irregularly and not in full. Salem cannot expect to receive his salary every month, and must make do with less than half, since the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in the West Bank still refuses to recognize those who work in the public sector in Hamas-run Gaza.

“I have to manage my expenses very carefully, so I can secure the most important essentials for my family,” Salem said. “But I really want to avoid bringing my children into this misery every time they ask for watermelon.”

First imports in eight years

This season has seen unprecedented high prices for watermelon. And it is causing an angry dispute between farmers and Gaza’s authorities.

For the first time in eight years, in June the Ministry of Agriculture in Gaza imported watermelons from Israel in order to protect consumers. The ministry was going to try to import one ton of watermelons in a three-day window but, according to ministry spokesperson Fayez al-Sheikh, Israeli intransigence at the Kerem Shalom crossing, where goods and materials can enter Gaza, led to the ministry securing only 300 kg.

Al-Sheikh partly attributed the high prices this year to the amount of land farmers allocated to seed and plant watermelons. Last year, the ministry spokesperson said, more than 3,000 dunums of land — a dunam is the equivalent of 1,000 square meters — were used to plant watermelons. This year less than 2,000 dunums were used.

But he also blamed farmers for trying to make too much from a limited harvest.

“Farmers want to make as much profit as they can, but there should be a limit to this,” al-Sheikh said.

Some farmers, he said, tried to limit the quantity of watermelons available at markets as a way to keep prices high at peak harvest in the middle of July, ensuring good profits until the end of the season. This, al-Sheikh said, is what triggered a response from the government.

“When we import from Israel, prices automatically fall. We succeeded in bringing the price down to about 10 shekels for 7 to 8 kg,” al-Sheikh added.

The imports ended about a week after they began when a deal was agreed between the government and local farmers to increase the supply of watermelons to local markets to keep prices stable and reasonable.

Costly crop

But farmers are struggling in a dire economic climate. According to Zaki Sawarka, who has been farming watermelon for 30 years, this year proved very challenging for farmers.

The uncommonly cold weather in the first months of the year and very powerful storms that lashed the area in January meant a struggle for farmers to save their crops.

“The plummeting temperatures during January and February, which is exactly the start of season, were very disruptive. This winter has cost us dearly,” Sawarka told The Electronic Intifada.

Watermelon grown during winter should be covered with plastic sheets — sheets that were not always available to farmers due to Israeli import restrictions — in order to keep the cold off the crop.

The long and regular power outages in Gaza — also a result of Israeli policy and Palestinian political division — exacerbated the situation since Sawarka had to secure fuel to run a generator that supplies his farm with electricity during the power cuts, and in order to keep temperatures under the plastic sheets up.

“We have to cover all those costs on our own, we do not get support, and we still sustain losses because of the increasingly unbearable situation in Gaza,” the farmer said.

Sawarka estimated that one dunum of watermelon would cost him not less than $1,000 to bring from seed to harvest. And yet, for all the cost, he also admitted a deeper attachment to what is a family trade.

“My father taught me all the secrets of how to grow an excellent watermelon; it is part of our heritage. I always feel that it is my duty to grow the best watermelon possible,” Sawarka said.

“Don’t let our enemies profit”

In the past, in markets flooded with Israeli produce, watermelons were cheap. But the situation changed when Gaza’s authorities began striving for self-sufficiency back in 2008.

Tahseen aI-Saqa, an official in charge of monitoring imports at the ministry of agriculture, said authorities are working hard to support the watermelon industry in Gaza to avoid the need to import from Israel.

“This is a direct interest for us. First of all: we do not let our enemies profit from us; and second, it is a chance to help our farmers improve their skills,” al-Saqa told The Electronic Intifada.

The ministry has organized several courses to teach farmers modern and sustainable methods of growing watermelon that are not reliant on the use of pesticides, the official said.

“We hope that we can continue in this way, but our farmers need to know we are committed to protecting the consumers,” he noted.

Fadi Hassan, from Khan Younis, has been farming watermelon for the last 15 years. He supports the initiative to become independent of Israeli imports, but said Gaza’s authorities also need to understand that under current conditions, Gaza’s farmers are finding it very hard to make ends meet.

“We rely on our yield of watermelons to earn a living,” Hassan told The Electronic Intifada. That yield, he said, is dependent on the right weather conditions, but also on broader economic conditions. He cited as obstacles the Israeli blockade and the Egyptian clampdown on smuggling tunnels, which has left farmers reliant on more expensive Jordanian fertilizer, rather than the Egyptian kind that used to be smuggled in.

The blockade, he asserted, has increased costs for farmers, who are then forced to pass those on to the consumers. Nevertheless, Hassan said, striving for self-sufficiency was the “right thing to do.”

“Instead of letting the Israeli farmers earn, we are giving a full chance for the Gazan farmers to do well on their land,” Hassan said.

Isra Saleh el-Namey is a journalist from Gaza.