Why Gaza's flowers are no longer in bloom

Gaza's flower exports had continued to grow since the 1990s, until it ran into the winter of the Israeli siege.

al-monitor A Palestinian farmer picks flowers from a farm, Rafah, Gaza, Feb. 11, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa.

Dec 10, 2018

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — When Ghazi Hijazi started to grow flowers nearly three decades ago on two dunams (0.49 acres) of land in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, he thought it was the opportunity of a lifetime and a legacy to leave his eight sons.

The farmer allocated two dunams of his land to flowers in 1991. By 2000, he had begun using 40 dunams (approximately 10 acres) to plant carnations. “My father expanded the farm every year. We worked with him,” one of his sons, Mohammad Hijazi, told Al-Monitor. “We had around 25 workers helping us, and during the harvest season of carnations, which begins in December and ends in June, we would hire more so we could quickly prep the flowers for export.”

The boys worked alongside their father and learned the business. “We would start working at five in the morning during harvest season and stop after midnight. We used to work a lot. We would have our three meals at the farm and even sleep there, but only for a few hours and then get back to work,” said Mohammad, now 35.

“Despite the hard work, it was fun planting and harvesting flowers. Being close to them gave us great psychological comfort,” he added. The flowers also brought great profits. Particularly when they started exporting flowers in the mid-1980s, the profits grew as well.

Other farmers in the region also started planting flowers. One dunam of flowers would make about $3,000 a year in the 1990s and early 2000s, while one citrus dunam was only good for about $500 in the same period.

But the Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip in 2006 changed all of that. “We were no longer able to export flowers to European traders on agreed time frames because the crossings were closed. Moreover, [Israeli authorities] would deliberately close them during key seasons and on occasions such as New Year’s,” said Mohammad.

If you could not export the flowers, there was little point in growing them, Mohammad explained. Cut flowers or bouquets are a luxury for cash-strapped Gazans, and if the large number of flowers could neither be sold nor exported, the farmers could only do one thing with them: feed them to the animals.

However, some farmers refused to give up and continued to grow flowers in hopes of exporting them. They contacted the Royal FloraHolland to persuade European traders to continue to import Gaza flowers, but to no avail. Eventually, in 2007, the Dutch government implemented a project to support flower farmers so they could continue their work by covering 60% of production costs.

Flower farms barely stayed afloat for seven years until the Dutch project ended in 2014. After exports stopped, a limited number of farmers insisted on planting flowers but gradually gave up. Only Mohammad remains with 10 dunams — a quarter of what his father used to plant — and he sells his flowers in the local market.

Mohammad explained, “My brothers either stuck to planting vegetables instead of flowers or tried to resort to other jobs, although they had difficulty finding opportunities.”

His job was no easier. He said, “I have only three workers left on the farm, and I have planted new varieties of flowers to sell in the local market. Since my father’s time and until 2014, we would only plant carnations, which could be transferred from one country to another without any damage.”

But this year, with the economic crisis in the country deepening, Mohammad’s farm is practically empty save for a few flowers that give Mohammad a glimmer of hope.

He could end up giving up on flowers if he found a profitable crop, and he will advise his sons to take up a different career option.

Director general of marketing and crossings at the Ministry of Agriculture Tahsin al-Sakka told Al-Monitor that flower cultivation began in the Gaza Strip in the late 1970s and ended almost completely in 2014. It peaked in 2000 with 625 planted dunams all around the Gaza Strip, exporting 62.5 million flowers.

“In light of the siege, exports stopped in 2008 for three years. But after Europe pressured the occupation, we were able to export 20 million flowers in the 2011 season. The Dutch government’s project strongly contributed to regaining export activity since the project covered 60% of the cost of production,” Sakka said.

“Farmers continued their work thanks to this project, but they could no longer bear the cost on their own when the project ended in 2014,” he added, noting, “Planting one dunam of flowers costs $10,000 a year.”

“Exporting agricultural crops, flowers included, was a mainstay of the Palestinian economy, and in some years our export revenues reached $50 million. This is why the occupation targeted all exports and closed the crossings," Sakka added.

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