Abdulfattah Al-Khateeb struggles to farm strawberries under the
Israeli-imposed closure. His business and his way of life are threatened by the
increasing restrictions despite the recent "easing" of the Israeli
closure.

 


 

Beit Lahia, Palestine—The northern Gaza Strip area of Beit Lahia 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 Lahia farmers like Abdulfattah
Al-Khateeb, who has been growing strawberries here for over twenty-five 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 twenty 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 Lahia 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 Lahia 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 Lahia 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% 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 Abdel says he cannot survive on them: "Before 2007, one
kilogram of strawberries used to cost twenty-four 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 Lahia, 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 [fifteen 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 dunums 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%—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% of all agricultural lands in the Gaza Strip, estimated at approximately
US$269,000,000 in damages, and over US$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."