Zachary Hijazi stood before his farmland in the town of Rafah with a quizzical expression on his face. He was wondering whether Israel would continue with its closure of the Karam Abu Salem (Kerem Shalom) commercial crossing, which would adversely affect the export of flowers from Gaza to Europe.
On Feb. 26, Israeli authorities had closed the Karam Abu Salem crossing, which normally operates five days a week, after a rocket was fired from the Gaza Strip into the Israeli city of Ashkelon. The crossing had been scheduled to reopen on Monday, March 4.
Over the past few years, Hijazi has reduced the area of land he cultivates. While he used to grow flowers over an area of 60 acres, producing more than 5 million flowers annually, he now farms 25 acres, producing approximately 2.5 million flowers a year. The sharp decline is due to Israel closing the crossing during high export seasons to prevent exports from leaving Gaza.
He said that the recent closure of the commercial crossing had resulted in a significant drop in the price of flowers, as the action came during high season, which usually brings increased demand for flowers in Europe because of International Women’s Day, on March 8.
When Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007, Israel banned the territory from exporting agricultural products to Europe. In 2010, however, Israeli authorities lifted the ban on Gazan exports to Europe, but continued to prevent the export of goods to other previously accessible world markets.
According to Tahsin al-Sakka, the general director of marketing and crossings in the Gaza Ministry of Agriculture, annual income from the export of agricultural products has decreased by 90% since the Israeli blockade of Gaza began. While exports used to be valued at around $40 million, they now total less than $4 million.
Before the blockade, Gaza exported crops to four different markets: Europe, Israel, the West Bank and Arab countries. The crops included some 50 million flowers, 1,500 tons of strawberries and around 1,500 tons of vegetables for Europe and were valued at $15 million. The Israeli market imported approximately 30,000 tons of vegetables, 5 million flowers, and 200 tons of fresh fish and leather from Gaza valued at $15 million. Meanwhile, the West Bank imported around 10,000 tons of vegetables and 30 million chicken eggs, worth up to $5 million. Arab countries imported vegetables worth $5 million from Gaza via Jordan.
During the past three years, since Israel lifted the ban on Gaza’s agricultural products, exports had risen to only 500 tons of strawberries, 10 million flowers and 100 tons of vegetables for Europe. Gaza has recently been allowed to export leafy greens, but only to Europe.
In the past, Palestinian farmers grew about 1,200 acres of flowers, but this has gradually decreased to 120 acres. Similarly, what had been 2,500 acres of strawberries has fallen to a mere 1,000 acres due to the inability of the domestic market to absorb the surplus given the limited export options.
Hijazi said his annual income from flowers used to be upward of $16,074, but has dropped to the equivalent of $5,358, making his monthly income less than $450.
Over the past few years, the Dutch government has been supporting measures to improve agricultural exports by supplying farmers with 44% of its flowers, 27% of its strawberries, and 27% of its vegetables. This is in addition to other forms of agricultural supplies, such as seedlings, pesticides, fertilizers and plastic greenhouses, to encourage farmers to continue cultivating crops, which they fear could run at a loss due to the crossing closures.
Sakka added that Israel’s Operation Pillar of Cloud, launched in November 2012, negatively affected strawberry exports, as farmers had been unable to visit their land for eight days to tend the crops. Thus, large amounts of the produce were damaged or destroyed, with losses estimated at $600,000.
The Gaza Strip is self-sufficient in terms of vegetable production — which accounts for 98% of agricultural activity — except in the case of onions and carrots, which are imported from Israel, in addition to nearly 35,000 tons of fruit, valued at $30 million, also imported from Israel.
Sakka said that in addition to agricultural imports from Israel, Gaza also imports from Egypt via tunnels and from Europe via Israeli crossings, at values of about $240 million, $30 million and $20 million, respectively.
Hijazi is optimistic about the future concerning his crops, as the price of flowers on the international market has increased recently. Nevertheless, he remains concerned about Israel closing commercial crossings and said that his cultivation areas have been reduced due to climate change.
“I have been seriously thinking of increasing the area of agriculture for carnations, but every time, I change my mind since the crossings remain a real nightmare for exports,” he said.
Hazem Balousha is a Palestinian journalist based in Gaza City. He has worked as news producer for BBC World Service and contributed to The Guardian (UK), Deutsche Welle (Germany), and Al-Raya (Qatar). Follow him on Twitter: @iHaZeMi.