RAFAH: Embattled farmers in Gaza’s once thriving flower-growing sector are being forced to watch their businesses wither before their eyes.
Times had been hard enough after Israeli authorities banned flower exports eight years ago, but restrictions imposed due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic have reduced trading opportunities to almost zero.
With crops coming into bloom, growers should now have been preparing for a busy period of supplying roses and other flowers for weddings, holidays, and national celebrations in Gaza.
But the COVID-19 outbreak has left many farmers with no choice other than to let their flowers be used for animal fodder or go to landfill sites.
“In these times of coronavirus, our flowers have become food for sheep and livestock,” said 20-year-old farmer Lubbad Hejazi, adding that dozens of Gazan growers had incurred heavy losses.
“We were awaiting the arrival of the spring and summer season when flowers bloom and production and sales increase in the market. But there is no longer any demand for flowers except in scarce quantities and at cheap prices, which does not compensate for costs, so they have become a share of livestock feed and landfill waste.”
The COVID-19 situation has only served to deepen the economic crises being faced not just by the flower farmers, but the 2 million Palestinians crammed into the coastal strip covering an area of 360 square kilometers.
In a bid to stop the spread of COVID-19, authorities in Gaza have introduced precautionary measures including the closure of wedding halls, restaurants, educational institutions and sports clubs.
In the hope that restrictions will soon start to be relaxed, Hejazi has begun “dwarfing” the seedlings of ripe flowers and damaging them, in the hope that they will bloom again a few weeks from now.
The Hejazi family of 25 members owns a 10-dunum (2.5 acres) area of farmland, one of the few flower-growing farms still remaining out of more than 500 producers that once operated around the city of Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, before 2012.
Hejazi said that it was only down to his father’s hard work and perseverance that the farm had managed to survive. But the Israeli blockade and ban on foreign exports, coupled with the ending of financial support from the Netherlands for Gazan flower growers, had forced the majority of farmers to switch to other crops.
However, if the COVID-19 crisis were prolonged, Hejazi said his father would have to either reduce the cultivation area or close the farm completely as he had already lost around 150,000 shekels ($43,000).
The annual cost of cultivating one dunam of flowers was 30,000 shekels, with the same area of roses being 50,000 shekels, he added. “Every day that passes costs about 800 shekels, which is the cost of workers’ wages, the price of electricity, water, pesticides, and expenses.”
Commercial cultivation of flowers took off in the Gaza Strip in 1991 and reached its peak in 1998 when around 1,200 acres were being farmed in and around Rafah and Beit Lahia.
But growing declined with the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada conflict in 2000 and received a decisive blow with Israel’s 2012 exports ban, leaving only around 6 percent of land still under cultivation from the production-period high.
“The cultivation of flowers in the Gaza Strip was a primary source of income for many farmers and exporters, and about 60 million flowers were exported annually,” said Maher Al-Tabaa, public relations manager at the Gaza Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
“But with the Israeli blockade, the closure of crossings and production costs, this sector has declined dramatically.”
With foreign and now local markets shriveled up, the outlook for Gaza’s flower growers as well as other sectors was looking gloomy, he added.