Gaza Greenhouses Wilt; Unsteady Security, Access Mar Future after Pullout
Byline: Joshua Mitnick, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
NETZER HAZANI, Gaza Strip - Hoping to save the jobs of thousands of Palestinian farm workers, interna- tional donors paid Jewish settlers $14 million to buy their Gaza Strip green- houses before the pullout in August. But Palestinian looters damaged many of the buildings, and access to international markets remains uncertain.
Rows of irrigation hoses run across the bare sand floor of a greenhouse, but as Hatem Awad prepares to plant the first crop of tomatoes since Israel handed these plantations over to the Palestinians, he is troubled by rips in the sheeting that covers the metal frame of the greenhouse.
"If the wind blows a little bit here, [the small tomato plants] will all fly away," said Mr. Awad, who had worked in the greenhouses for the Jewish settlers. "Winter is coming, and viruses will kill the plants."
The hope of foreign donors was that the Israelis would leave behind 800 acres of greenhouses, which grew flowers and produce, which would be ready for September planting. But the looters damaged many of the greenhouses, stripping them bare of the computers the settlers used to monitor crops. Irrigation pumps were stolen, electricity networks paralyzed, and protective sheeting for the hothouses was torn.
Palestinian officials said greenhouses covering a quarter of the land were damaged after the turnover. The transferred farms have the potential to nearly double the output of the Palestinian agriculture industry, the largest private-sector income engine in Gaza's $1 billion economy.
Now, as the Palestinians try to restart a lucrative agribusiness that exported produce to the United States and Europe, the greenhouses face an uncertain future. Lax security and unreliable access to foreign markets threaten to turn profit-making ventures that grossed $75 million per year into a money pit.
A successful revival of the greenhouses could boost the administration of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said Osama al-Farra, the mayor of Khan Younis. If the project falters, it could tilt the balance in favor of militant groups such as Hamas, which are vying for control of the new Palestinian territory in Gaza.
Although Palestinians spent precious weeks repairing and cleaning up the damage, orders for strawberry seedlings were held up for days at a border checkpoint while Israel shut down the crossing in a security alert.
The new managers of the agriculture estate were praised for starting to plant in October and hiring 3,000 workers, but the first season under the Palestinians could see a two-thirds drop in sales, said Boaz Karni, a treasurer at the Economic Cooperation Foundation, an Israeli nongovernmental organization that helped facilitate the transaction.
"It is certainly true that this is going to be a struggle to make work," said Bill Taylor, a U.S. member of the international team led by James D. Wolfensohn, a former World Bank president charged with assisting Gaza's economic recovery.
"Concerns about this being a profit-making enterprise are legitimate," Mr. Taylor added, citing uncertainty over free passage of products intended for export and continuing security problems.
Before Israel withdrew them from Gaza, Israeli settlers cultivated 1,125 acres there. About three-quarters of the hothouses were covered in the transfer, which assumed that Palestinian workers could use their agricultural know-how to keep the businesses alive. …