Farmers in Gaza’s Beit Lahia are out in force in the coastal enclave’s strawberry fields. Israel has given them the green light to start exporting their produce to Europe, and the farmers are keen to fill as many boxes with their locally grown produce.
But strawberry farming is a costly and labor intensive process, and the farmers have already suffered a huge loss due to an export ban imposed on them by the Jewish state.
Observing those at work is Ahmed al-Shafai, Head of the Gaza Association for Marketing Fruit And Vegetables.
According to al-Shafai farmers in the coastal enclave have lost more than 300,000 U.S dollars due to Israeli export restrictions.
“We thought we were going to export on the 18th November, but Israel only gave us the permit from 2nd December, which meant that farmers suffer a great loss. How? Well instead of exporting the strawberries we sold them in Gaza for four shekels a kilo, when it was meant to be sold in Europe for 22 shekels, so we lost 18 shekels per kilo. Which meant that farmers lost, in this period of time before the 2nd December 1, 400,000 shekels, and this was a loss for the farmers,” he said.
Export restrictions aren’t the only obstacle facing the farmers. Palestinian produce is also competing with goods from neighboring Egypt, as well as European strawberries from the Netherlands and Belgium.
“The prices are very low in Europe, and the reason being is that there is produce from Netherlands and Belgium in the European markets and Egypt, the Egyptians have vast amounts in the European markets, and it’s Egyptian strawberries that we’re really competing with because the cost of Egyptian strawberries is cheaper than ours,” added al-Shafai.
Israel imposed restrictions on trade to Gaza in 2001 following the outbreak of a Palestinian uprising and tightened them further six years later in 2007, after Hamas seized power in the coastal enclave.
Despite some of the export limits being lifted, farmers packing boxes labeled with ‘Produce of Palestine’ aren’t optimistic about the situation.
“The strawberry season this year is really very difficult. With regards to exports, they promised us that we would export, but the prices weren’t good. The next thing they told us was that they threw them from the plane. And now they’ve given us a price of 11 shekels, that isn’t a good price, you can’t even get workers with that price, really producing strawberries is expensive,” said farmer Hussam Hamdon.
This is not the first time Israel has permitted exports of Palestinian strawberries and flowers from Gaza. It previously coincided with the enlargement of a logistics hub at the Kerem Shalom crossing point in the south.
Exports have been seen by Israel as highly suspect since March 2004, when two Palestinian teenagers infiltrated the Israeli port of Ashdod by hiding in a shipping container. They blew themselves up, killing 10 people, and the Jewish state has restricted imports to stop arms reaching Hamas and to weaken its hold on Gaza’s 1.5 million inhabitants.
Human rights groups and the European Union have repeatedly called on Israel to ease its blockade on Gaza.
The 27-nation European Union spends millions to support the private sector in Gaza via the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and the Palestinian Authority.
But ultimately, the EU says, Gaza must export to achieve greater economic independence.
Reviving exports could partly redress the economic reverses, creating new employment for up to 40,000 in the enclave, provided long-delayed reconstruction can commence.
More than half the population currently relies on U.N. food aid. Gaza also gets a regular supply of foreign-financed heavy fuel oil via a pipeline from Israel for its power generator, plus shipments of cooking gas and gasoline.
Israel still prevents a long list of goods into the territory - including many items needed for construction - arguing they could be used to manufacture of weapons.