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.


Palestinian impatience threatens Gaza cease-fire

Palestinian men prepare an object to be flown toward Israel as part of their protest, near the Israel-Gaza border east of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Friday. (AFP)
Updated 20 January 2020

Palestinian impatience threatens Gaza cease-fire

  • There is no official announcement from the Palestinian factions about renewed hostilities

GAZA CITY: The launch of incendiary balloons from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory could mark the resumption of hostilities after some Palestinians expressed frustration at the lack of results from the temporary agreement with Israel.

There was no official announcement from the Palestinian factions about renewed hostilities, and Talal Abu Zarifa, a member of the Committee for the Return March, described them as “individual actions.”
Egypt had brokered a short-term agreement between Hamas and Israel in October 2018 to ease Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip and provide concessions in exchange for easing demonstrations on the border.
These included increasing the fishing zone in the Gaza Sea, allowing an increase in exports of products from the Gaza Strip, and the import of some materials that Israel had banned.
Media reports spoke of additional talks recently in Cairo to reach a long-term agreement between Hamas and Israel, which had been unsuccessful.
Bassem Naim, a Hamas leader, said the discussions were about extending the duration of the arrangement for an additional six months, as the previous timetable ended in December.
“The talk about a long-term agreement is only media gossip. The talks were centered on extending the duration of the previous understandings. There is no progress in the Israeli implementation of what has been agreed upon so far,” Naim said.
He added “Israel always make elections as excuse to prolong the period of understandings without improving them.”
The October 2018 agreement talked of two phases. The first was to provide specific facilities for the Gaza Strip, and the second was to begin after the formation of the Israeli government over a long-term truce that would include a prisoner exchange deal.
Political science professor Mokhamar Abu Saada believes that the tension on the Gaza border is over the slow implementation of the agreement.

HIGHLIGHTS

• Egypt had brokered a short-term agreement between Hamas and Israel in October 2018 to ease Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip and provide concessions in exchange for easing demonstrations on the border.

• A Hamas leader said there is a tension in the relationship between Egypt and Hamas as a result of Haniyeh’s visit to Tehran.

“We have noticed in the previous Israeli election period that there was an escalation as Hamas and factions tried to obtain more Israeli facilities. It was a way to pressure the Israeli government as it knew that the Israeli reaction would be limited in this period,” Abu Saada told Arab News.
“Netanyahu cannot at this stage reach a long-term agreement with Hamas because of the Israeli elections, because all he wants is to keep the Gaza Strip calm without tension, but he has no ability to offer much,” he added.
Press reports talk of a tension between Hamas and Egypt that led to the recent escalation in the Gaza Strip. Taher Al-Nounou, media adviser to Ismail Haniyeh, denied this.
He said in a press statement: “The head of Hamas attaches special importance to this firm and growing relationship (with Egypt), as Egypt has from its geographical position a central role in the path of the Palestinian issue.”
Egypt allowed Haniyeh to travel on a foreign tour at the end of last year for the first time since he became head of Hamas in 2017.
A Hamas leader who declined to be identified said that there is a tension in the relationship between Egypt and Hamas as a result of Haniyeh’s visit to Tehran to participate in the funeral of Qassem Soleimani.
“Hamas promised Egypt that Haniyeh would not visit Tehran but after the assassination of Soleimani there was a necessity to do so, which angered Egypt and increased tension,” he said.
Haniyeh’s presence at the funeral sparked a debate in Palestinian circles about Hamas’s position on Iran, and on Soleimani specifically.