Palestinian strawberry farmers hope for rich pickings as export markets open up this season

A farmer picking strawberries on his farm in Beit Lahia, Gaza. (Photo/Supplied)
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Updated 13 December 2019

Palestinian strawberry farmers hope for rich pickings as export markets open up this season

  • “This season may be different in terms of production volume and quality.”

BEIT LAHIA/GAZA: Farming in the Gaza Strip can be unpredictable at the best of times, but for strawberry grower Akram Abu Khousa years of toil under Israeli restrictions are starting to bear fruit.

The Palestinian farmer is celebrating the success of the first major export of his crop from Gaza to Gulf markets, business he hopes will compensate him and his fellow growers after years of heavy financial losses suffered due to Israeli blockades and restrictions on border trade crossings.

“Over past years we have faced problems with marketing, which was almost confined to the local market. This forced us to reduce prices significantly and inflicted heavy losses on us, as a result of the deteriorating economic situation in the Gaza Strip,” Abu Khousa told Arab News.

“This season may be different in terms of production volume and quality.”

The blockade imposed by Israel following the success of Hamas in the second Palestinian legislative elections in early 2006, led to huge losses for strawberry farmers, and caused the areas of cultivated land to be reduced to only 450 dunums (111 acres) in 2015.

However, Israel increased the export allowance in 2017, reviving hopes among farmers of a more prosperous future.

The strawberry harvest season begins in early December and continues until the end of March.

This year Abu Khousa planted an area of more than eight dunums (almost 2 acres) of strawberries in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahia, seven dunums of which were in the traditional way and one using hanging pots.

“The trend for hanging planting has increased the rate of production. One dunum cultivated in the modern way gives more than three times the traditional cultivation,” he said.

The soil and climate of Beit Lahia contain characteristics that distinguish the area from the rest of the Palestinian lands, making it ideal for the cultivation of high-quality strawberries.

SPEEDREAD

The blockade imposed by Israel led to huge losses for strawberry farmers, and caused the areas of cultivated land to be reduced to only 450 dunums in 2015.

At the beginning of December, Abu Khousa and other strawberry farmers began the process of harvesting and exporting their crops to West Bank cities. The Ministry of Agriculture had asked them for samples, and after testing their quality, the daily average of trucks allowed to leave Gaza was determined by the Israeli side.

The price of 1 kilo of strawberries locally, usually at the beginning of the season, was about 10 shekels (nearly $3), but gradually decreased, reaching four shekels at peak periods.

“If the export process does not continue, we will suffer a major setback and loss,” added Abu Khousa. He pointed out that local sales did not cover the basic cost of production.

He noted that the vast experience of the farmers of Beit Lahia made them capable of producing crops to meet strict international specifications.

The strawberry season provides hundreds of work opportunities during harvest times, helping to alleviate high unemployment rates in the Gaza Strip.

According to the latest data from the Palestinian Statistics Center, jobless rates were running at 53 percent, and 67 percent among youth.

Spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture in Gaza, Adham Al-Basyouni, told Arab News: “Israel has tried over the years of the blockade to control the export of strawberry products in particular, because it knows that it is one of the distinct crops that come out to the West Bank and European and Arab markets.”

The success of the experimental export of strawberries — which included 8 tons going to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain — had been a major boost for farmers and the local economy in Gaza, said Al-Basyouni, and he hoped it would be a prelude to further shipments of strawberries and other crops.

Strawberries are exported through Kerem Shalom, the only commercial crossing in the Gaza Strip, and then moved on to Jordan via King Hussein Bridge, and from there to the Gulf states.

The director of the Agricultural Cooperative Society in Beit Lahia, Mohamed Ghaben, said: “Gaza strawberries have very high-quality specifications and compete with the global product.”

There were 1,700 dunums planted with strawberries this season, compared to 1,100 dunums last season, and he expected production levels this time round to reach 5,000 tons, half of which were planned for export, he said.

The cultivation of strawberries in the Gaza Strip began at the end of the 1960s, with an experimental area estimated at one-and-a-half acres, and after achieving remarkable success, it gradually expanded until it reached 2,500 dunums in 2005.


Is France helping Lebanon, or trying to reconquer it?

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers his speech during a press conference in Beirut on Thursday, two days after a massive explosion devastated the Lebanese capital. (AFP)
Updated 09 August 2020

Is France helping Lebanon, or trying to reconquer it?

  • A surprising online petition emerged this week asking France to temporarily restore its mandate, saying Lebanon’s leaders have shown “total inability to secure and manage the country”

PARIS: It was almost as if Emmanuel Macron forgot that Lebanon is no longer a French protectorate.
Visiting explosion-ravaged Beirut this week, France’s leader comforted distraught crowds, promised to rebuild the city and claimed that the blast pierced France’s own heart. “France will never let Lebanon go,” Macron said. “The heart of the French people still beats to the pulse of Beirut.”
His critics denounced the overtures as a neocolonialist foray by a European leader seeking to restore sway over a troubled Middle Eastern land — and distract from mounting problems at home. A meme circulating online dubbed him Macron Bonaparte, a 21st century Emperor Napoleon.
But Macron’s defenders — including desperate Beirut residents who called him “our only hope” — praised him for visiting gutted neighborhoods where Lebanese leaders fear to tread, and for trying to hold Lebanon’s politicians accountable for the corruption and mismanagement blamed for Tuesday’s deadly blast.
Macron’s visit exposed France’s central challenge as it prepares to host an international donors conference for Lebanon on Sunday: How to help a country in crisis, where French economic ties run deep, without interfering in its internal affairs.
“We are walking on the edge of a precipice. We have to aid, support and encourage the Lebanese people, but at the same time not give the impression that we want to establish a new protectorate, which would be completely stupid,” said Jack Lang, a former French government minister who now heads the Arab World Institute in Paris. “We must find new, intelligent solutions to aid the Lebanese.”
France’s ties with Lebanon reach back at least to the 16th century, when the French monarchy negotiated with Ottoman rulers to protect Christians — and secure influence — in the region. By the time of the 1920-1946 French mandate, Lebanon already had a network of French schools and French speakers that survives to this day — along with France’s cozy relationships with Lebanon’s power brokers, including some accused of fueling its political and economic crisis.

HIGHLIGHT

Macron’s defenders — including desperate Beirut residents who called him ‘our only hope’ — praised him for visiting gutted neighborhoods where Lebanese leaders fear to tread

A surprising online petition emerged this week asking France to temporarily restore its mandate, saying Lebanon’s leaders have shown “total inability to secure and manage the country.”
It is widely seen as an absurd idea — Macron himself told Beirut residents on Wednesday that “it’s up to you to write your history” — but 60,000 people have signed it, including members of France’s 250,000-strong Lebanese diaspora and people in Lebanon who said it is a way to express their desperation and distrust of the political class.
Aside from a show of much-needed international support, many in Lebanon viewed Macron’s visit as a way to secure financial assistance for a country wracked with debt.
The French leader also managed to bring the divided political class together, if briefly. In a rare scene, the heads of Lebanon’s political factions — some of them still bitter enemies from the 1975-1990 civil war — appeared together at the Palais des Pins, the French Embassy headquarters in Beirut, and filed out after meeting Macron.
But to many, the visit was seen as patronizing. Some lashed out at the petition and those celebrating “France, the tender mother.”
One writer, Samer Frangieh, said Macron gathered the politicians as “schoolchildren,” reprimanding them for failing to carry out their duties.
There were other, more subtle jabs against France’s show of influence. While Macron was touring neighborhoods torn apart by the explosion, the health minister in the Hezbollah-backed government toured field hospitals donated by Iran and Russia, major power players in the region.
“I get the people who want the mandate. They have no hope,” said Leah, an engineering student in Beirut who did not want her last name published out of concern for political repercussions. She spoke out strongly against the idea, and against those who see Macron as Lebanon’s “savior.”
She said that risks worsening Lebanon’s divisions, as Maronite Christians and French-educated Muslims embrace Macron while others lean away. “He hasn’t resolved his issues with his country, with his people. How is he giving advice to us?” she asked.
In Paris, Macron’s domestic political opponents from the far left to the far right warned the centrist leader against creeping neocolonialism, and extracting political concessions from Lebanon in exchange for aid. “Solidarity with Lebanon should be unconditional,” tweeted Julien Bayou, head of the popular Greens party.
Macron himself firmly rejected the idea of reviving the French mandate.
“You can’t ask me to substitute for your leaders. It’s not possible,” he said. “There is no French solution.”
But he made a point of noting that he plans to return to Lebanon to verify that promised reforms are being undertaken on Sept. 1, the 100th anniversary of the declaration of Greater Lebanon — and the beginning of French rule.