Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Strawberry Fields-Forever?

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Strawberry Fields-Forever?

Article excerpt

DESPITE THE presence some 300 yards away of a two-story-tall bulldozer next to a menacing tank gun which tracks their every move, Hassan Felfel, 14, and his father, Ahmed, 53, diligently farm their fields, picking, stemming and cleaning the brilliant red strawberries they've nurtured to maturity over the past year. The father and son know the Israeli tank and bulldozer are positioned on their field not for their protection, but as a threat. The family's work and livelihood could disappear in an instant, if, on a soldier's whim, they suddenly are reclassified as a "security threat" while picking crops, justifying an Israeli attack on them, warranted or otherwise.

Throughout Europe, Gaza is known for the quality of its produce. Its soil contains an ideal mix of sand, clay and mulch, augmented by ample sun, predictable rainfall and the sweet water from Gaza's wells. Pesticides are rarely necessary. This combination produces a firm, large and sweet berry with a brilliant scarlet hue-one prized throughout Europe's higher-end markets and restaurants.

Prior to 1967, the region harvested a multitude of crops, supplying canneries and markets locally and abroad. While the majority of these businesses were destroyed under occupation, a few have managed to survive. After the free and fair election of a Hamas government in January 2006, however, Israel laid siege to Gaza, shutting its borders and blockading nearly all transit from entering or leaving.

Meanwhile the occupying power continued to fire missiles and tank shells into Gaza's neighborhoods, cities and farmlands, tightening its stranglehold on daily life. When the Israeli- and U.S.-backed Fatah militias failed to overthrow the government in Gaza last summer, as they had succeeded in doing in the West Bank, the Israeli government fully isolated the 23-mile-long strip of land bordering the Mediterranean. Cut off from the world, all of Gaza's industries now suffer, with those dependent on selling perishable goods becoming insolvent in record numbers.

For the Felfel family, which includes 14 children, tending their land and strawberry crop is a centuries-old practice, their land having been passed down from generation to generation since ancient times. Even though the family knows that as a result of Israel's blockade their crops have little chance of reaching market, they honor the traditional imperative of tending the land and putting in a good day's work. Nevertheless, they live and work each day in the face of constant fear.

"We are alive, but dead at the same time," stated the senior Felfel.

The city of Beit Lahiya where he and his family live is in northern Gaza, near the Israeli border-just a few miles from the southern Israeli town of Sderot. Since the homemade rockets used by the Palestinian resistance have a very limited range, the militants often retaliate against Israeli Hellfire missile and tank shell attacks on Gaza's cities from the fields around Beit Lahiya. Sderot remains one of the few locations within Israel their crude rockets can reach.

Significantly, the attacks from Gaza, which numbered some 200 during the week following Jan. 18-after Israel had killed at least 39 Palestinians, including members of a Gaza wedding party, in four days-dwindled to fewer than three a day while the Rafah border was breached and Gazans were able to shop and visit relatives on the Egyptian side of the border.

Nevertheless, Israeli occupation forces continue to attack Gaza with missiles, then bulldoze, raze and demolish anything that may conceivably be used as a launching pad, regardless of whether it was used as such in the past. Even when innocent civilians are harmed by mistake, the Israeli government rarely compensates the victim.

Although the Felfel family has no ties to Hamas, Fatah or resistance groups in Gaza, "Israeli tanks and bulldozers demolished my irrigation system, greenhouses and equipment," Felfel said. …

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