Closed Israeli borders squeeze Gaza farmers

Ala' Abu Halima, the son of Gaza Strip strawberry farmer Ahmed Abu Halima, eats some of the family crop in Beit Lahiya, Gaza Strip.
Ala' Abu Halima, the son of Gaza Strip strawberry farmer Ahmed Abu Halima, eats some of the family crop in Beit Lahiya, Gaza Strip. Dion Nissenbaum / MCT

BEIT LAHIYA, Gaza Strip — It's harvest time on the sandy hillsides of the northern Gaza Strip, but about the only one picking strawberries on a recent afternoon was 2-year-old Ala Abu Halima, who quietly smushed berry after berry into his mouth.

The strawberries going into the boy's mouth should have been on their way to upscale markets across Europe. Instead, what was expected to be the largest strawberry harvest in Gaza Strip history may turn out to be one of the worst.

"It's making me crazy," said Ahmed Abu Halima, Ala's father and a farmer. "Every day I come and go, but there's nothing to do."

On the eve of the Bush administration's Middle East conference in Annapolis, Md., which is scheduled to begin Tuesday with diplomats from as many as 40 countries attending, the Gaza Strip remains under economic lockdown. Virtually nothing is getting in or out as Israel retains a chokehold that's intended to force rulers from the Islamist group Hamas, who control Gaza, into submission. And fears are rising that the anemic Gaza economy will be unable to recover if the crisis doesn't end soon.

On Wednesday, under heavy pressure from European nations and Israeli businesses, the Israeli government announced that it would allow Gaza farmers to export strawberries and flowers — the first real export of Gaza goods in nearly six months. But carrying out the decision could prove impossible.

The main import-export terminal in Gaza remains closed, and Israel refuses to reopen it while Hamas remains in control. It's doubtful that smaller border crossings can handle the volume. Israel also is unlikely to allow any goods out of Gaza without taking time to inspect their contents — a process that could leave the flowers and berries rotting at the border. Since June, exactly seven truckloads of potatoes have left Gaza.

"It's very hard to implement from a security point of view," said Shlomo Dror, a spokesman for the branch of the Israeli military that oversees the nation's borders with Gaza.

At one time, Abu Halima's strawberry fields were expected to become part of the foundation for a rejuvenated Palestinian economy.

After Israel razed its Gaza Strip settlements in 2005, international donors invested millions of dollars in Palestinian farms, which export everything from strawberries to fresh-cut flowers to Israel and Europe. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice used significant political clout to force Israeli leaders to accept a deal that was supposed to open up Gaza's borders.

But then came the Hamas victory in elections and the U.S.-backed international boycott of the Palestinian Authority, followed by prolonged combat over Palestinian rockets fired into Israel, which Israeli forces responded to with air strikes and regular artillery bombardments.

When Hamas seized military control of Gaza last summer, Israel clamped down even harder. Now only medicine and food gets in, and almost no one gets out.

That's meant death to Gaza factories, which rely on raw material to make soda, ice cream, furniture and other goods. Soon, it could cripple Gaza's 4,500 strawberry farmers.

There were high hopes that this year the Gaza farmers would produce the biggest strawberry crop in history. Even though the ban on imports prevented farmers from getting the plastic and pesticides needed to protect their crops, they planted more than 600 acres, which were expected to produce 2,000 tons of strawberries for export.

With the first strawberries of the season ready, however, the borders remain closed.

The same thing already has happened to flowers. Earlier this year, Dror said, Israel approved the transfer of 3 million flower seedlings into Gaza. The flowers were meant for shops in the Netherlands. But earlier this month, the flower growers watched the first few million of their flowers blossom and then rot in the fields.

In a letter to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who's now a special Middle East envoy for the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, leaders of Gaza's farm union warned that continued closure would rob 8,000 Palestinian families of their livelihood and cost them $14 million.

The farm leaders warned that desperate farmers might be forced to look for other ways to make money.

"All the farmers will leave their farms and approach other income means that are meanwhile available in the Gaza Strip, which is terrorism," the union wrote.

Abu Halima isn't ready to embrace such extremes. But the 35-year-old father of seven is growing tired of being caught in the middle of a political feud without end. If the season goes bust, Abu Halima said he would have to sell his tractor to pay his debts.

"I blame them all," Abu Halima said while carrying his 2-year-old through his strawberry fields. "Hamas. Fatah. Israel. All of them. Things here have been bad, but never this bad."

(Special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this report from Jerusalem.)