Palestine’s struggling palm sector

While Palestinian dates are slowly becoming popular around the world, the palm sector is facing several Israeli constraints.

al-monitor Image by Hugo Goodridge/Al-Monitor.

Sep 24, 2017

The Palestinian territories produce fresh and dried dates that are popular in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, but this promising sector is facing many challenges due to Israeli constraints on exports and Israel’s control of water resources in the West Bank. In addition, the palm sector does not have a strong council of representatives to support farmers and teach them how to fight the red palm weevil (RPW) and improve the quality of their produce to comply with exportation standards.

Each year, in August, the palm season is launched in Jericho, the West Bank, which is historically known as the “City of Palms” and is famous for growing Medjool dates. The season lasts until November. In the Gaza Strip, known for the Hayani variety of dates, the season extends from September to December, specifically in Deir el-Balah and Khan Yunis.

Wael Thabet, the director general of the General Directorate for Plant Protection at the Ministry of Agriculture in Gaza, told Al-Monitor, “In the Gaza Strip, there are 250,000 palm trees, including 150,000 ones bearing fruits that produce around 15,000 tons of dates yearly. Most of the production is locally consumed, while 1,500 tons are stored in freezers and are exported to the West Bank when the Israeli authorities allow it in limited quantities that do not exceed 700 tons per year.” The remaining quantities are left for local consumption or thrown away if there are long electricity cuts that damage them.

According to Thabet, the palm industry in the Gaza Strip is suffering from the lack of marketing experience and the inability of companies and individuals to communicate with Israeli and international companies to export dates. He said, “Hayani dates need strong marketing and packaging experience, as they quickly become clammy. They need special processing and freezers for storage, but Gaza farmers do not have these techniques.”

He added, “Growing dates is not costly, and they do not require much labor. The palm trees need three years before beginning to bear fruits. This sector has attracted the attention of Palestinian farmers for thousands of years since palm trees had religious and economic significance, and they can withstand harsh and hot climate conditions and soil salinity.”

In Gaza, a single palm tree can cost between 75-100 Israeli shekels ($21-$29) and generates profits of 90-240 shekels ($26-$69) with average production of 120 kilograms (265 pounds) per tree based on the quality of product. While in the West Bank, the Medjool tree costs more, between 150-300 shekels ($43- $86), with average profits varying between 400-900 shekels ($115-$258) per tree, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

In Gaza, farmers compete to empty their date produce in the market and to get a good price early in the season. But this does not last as prices quickly drop and the production exceeds the local need, due to the lack of exportation opportunities and the nature of Hayani dates, which do not last long on the trees and soon become damp.

Abu Mohammad Shehen, from Deir el-Balah, told Al-Monitor, “I have been making efforts all year to improve pollination during spring and irrigation and to fight the RPW, which almost ruined my farm. The harvesting season has begun, and the price of dates will soon drop due to production surplus and lack of opportunities to export huge quantities.”

In 2000, the Israeli authorities banned the export of red dates from Gaza. In 2015, they allowed the export of limited quantities.

Shehen expressed his concerns about the palm sector due to the spreading RPW, which slowly destroys the palm trees “due to the inability to cover the cost of pesticides. Some farmers have abandoned their trees, and the weevil moved to nearby farms. The lack of exportation opportunities undermined the economic value of the tree.”

Shehen believes that a strong, unified palm council is much needed to unite the West Bank and the Gaza Strip under one umbrella and to link the farmers together to exchange information and techniques to improve production and fight the RPW. The council should also pressure Israel to allow the export of more quantities from Gaza and to encourage the private sector to invest in the Gaza Strip to urge farmers to take care of the sector, which is burdening them due to low revenues.

Under the auspices of the French Development Agency, Gaza's Date and Palm Cluster was established in 2014. The National Economy Ministry is in charge of this cluster, in cooperation with the Federation of Palestinian Chambers of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture. The cluster is still in the inception phase and includes small- and middle-sized local enterprises in the Gaza Strip. The Date and Palm Cluster in Gaza aims at developing and promoting dates.

According to Ahmad al-Fares, the director of the Ministry of Agriculture’s office in Jericho, the planted surface area of palm trees covers 18,000 dunams (4,448 acres) and it includes 250,000 palm trees, 60% of which bear fruit. Of the 7,500 tons of Medjool dates produced yearly, 300 tons are exported to Arab and European countries, including date-producing ones like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco. The rest is consumed locally.

According to Fares, the palm sector in Jericho suffers from Israeli tensions all year long. He told Al-Monitor, “Medjool dates are profitable and cannot bear dryness. The Israeli control over water resources in al-Aghwar [in Jericho] is the toughest challenge for the palm sector.”

Fares noted, “Israel repeatedly forbade the agriculture director from restoring old historical wells in the region and refused to license new wells. Israel also destroyed some wells it had built around ponds in Jaflak in al-Aghwar.”

Fares added, “Israel, which controls the crossings, forces Palestinian companies to pay three times the shipping and exportation costs, compared to Israeli exporters who enjoy facilitated services to export Israeli dates.”

As for the need for a strong palm council, Ismail Doueik, the chairman of the Palm and Date Council in the West Bank, said in a phone interview with Al-Monitor, “The minister of agriculture issued a decision to activate the council for both Gaza and the West Bank in 2012, and elections were held and the council members were appointed. But we are still waiting for the official approval of the president or the Palestinian Legislative Council to activate the council in both Gaza and the West Bank.”

Doueik noted that supporting the palm sector is a national cause, and there is international compassion with the Palestinian production and boycott for the settlements’ products, as they are illegal. Many settlement dates have failed the quality tests because they irrigate with refined water.

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