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Why Gazan women are turning to cactus picking

Women in the Gaza Strip are harvesting cactus fruit as seasonal jobs to either save for college or help their families in light of the difficult economic conditions.
A Palestinian man harvests cactus fruit on a farm in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip July 20, 2011.  REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa (GAZA - Tags: FOOD AGRICULTURE) - RTR2P2LA

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — With a long stick that has a curved metal tip, Sanaa Omar, 14, who lives in Johr al-Deek village in the central Gaza Strip, tries to pick cactuses to put them in a basket she holds in her other hand. Nearby, her sister Hind Omar, 13, competes with her to harvest the biggest number of fruits to sell them and make some money to support their families in their basic daily needs.

Cactus, aka Barbary fig, is common in the eastern parts of the Gaza Strip and does not need care and irrigation from farmers, because its deep roots extract underground water. Its stems retain water inside.

Sanaa and Hind head out early every morning to the nearby farms to pick the rough thorny cactuses.

Sanaa told Al-Monitor, “My sister and I try to leave at 5 in the morning to harvest cactuses from the nearby farms. Farmers allow us to pick whatever we want, since cactuses are cheap relative to other fruits that they plant.”

Sanaa and Hind, who have memorized the road leading to the areas where the cactuses are planted in Johr al-Deek, no longer know the way to school. Their father took them out of school a year ago because he needs their help, as there is no son in the family. The girls spend around six hours daily collecting cactuses and selling 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) for 3 shekels ($0.80). They return home with 20 shekels (around $5) daily.

Sanaa said, “Although their thorns are painful, our unemployed father asks us to pick them and sell them to help him support our five-member family.”

Nizar al-Wahidi, the director general of Irrigation and Soil at the Ministry of Agriculture, told Al-Monitor, “Cactus is not planted in independent spaces. Farmers plant it along vertical lines, like a wall, to protect their lands from strangers and thieves. They don’t care about selling cactus for profit.”

He said that the average cultivated surface area of cactuses in the Gaza Strip is around 400 dunams (99 acres), and the average production per dunam amounts to 3 tons. Gaza produces around 1,200 tons of cactuses yearly.

Iyad Daloul, 49, a farmer who owns 3 dunams (0.74 acre) planted with olives and guava in Hay al-Zeitoun, east of Gaza City, told Al-Monitor, “Farmers are allowing women to pick cactuses planted along the planted lands without considering this theft or punishing them for doing so. Cactus is not expensive, compared to 1 kilogram of guava, which is sold for 7 shekels [$1.80]. Therefore, cactus is considered the fruit of the poor.”

The harvest season starts in August and ends in November, and it offers temporary job opportunities for many women of all ages in the Gaza Strip to meet their basic needs. The unemployment rate in Gaza is 41.2%, as per an official survey issued by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics in July.

Zeinab Issa, 20, who lives in Khazaa in southern Gaza, is trying to take advantage of the cactus season to make some profit. She told Al-Monitor, “I really need to pick cactuses and sell them to save for my university tuition. My father told me that he won’t be able to pay for my university because his monthly income of 1,200 shekels [around $316] can barely provide for our family.”

Issa, who is studying engineering at the University College of Applied Sciences in Gaza, said that her younger brother sells the cactuses because women are not allowed to sell at the markets.

Issa noted that she often faces risks during her cactus picking, like snakes that nest in the fruit, and the thorns in the fruit bother her. She said, “When I finish picking cactus, it takes me hours to remove the thorns from my hands by using tweezers. Still, I wouldn’t give this up because I need to save for my college tuition.”

Mouin Rajab, an economics teacher at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, said that women pick and sell cactuses to support their families and provide their basic needs amid the rising levels of unemployment and poverty in the wake of the Israeli blockade. He told Al-Monitor, “The bad economic situation in the Gaza Strip and the declining job opportunities have pushed young women to rely on themselves rather than their fathers and seek jobs.”

He noted that society considers women working in an environment where there are men shameful. He said, “Young women in Gaza prefer to take on individual jobs that do not involve mingling with men, like harvesting and embroidery to avoid society’s criticism.”

Wahidi agreed with Rajab that picking and selling cactuses has helped provide temporary job opportunities for the unemployed. He said, “I strongly support the cultivation of cactuses on wide stretches of land in Gaza for several reasons. This fruit can tolerate high levels of salt in water and its blossoms attract bees. As a result, raising bees and producing honey proliferate in Gaza, which means more job opportunities.”

He added that the Ministry of Agriculture does not have any plans to develop cactus cultivation in Gaza because it is preoccupied with other matters like seeking self-sufficiency in vegetables.

With the end of the harvest season, the young women return to unemployment, in the hope of finding another job opportunity provided by nature, amid the lack of jobs in the local job market.

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