Independent Appeal: Crushed: the dreams of a good life

Attempts to regenerate Gaza's agricultural economy and provide much-needed jobs have been welcomed by Palestinians - but blighted by obstructive border controls. By Donald Macintyre
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Perhaps nothing better illustrates the soaring hopes and crashing disappointments of Gaza in the last 15 months than the experience of the Al Boh brothers.

Barakat Ramadan Al Boh, 53, sat and chatted this week outside his home in Beit Hanoun, which still bears the scars of bulldozer damage done by Israeli units which laid waste to the houses opposite during their lethal six-day incursion into the town.

Mr Al Boh recalled how, in September 2005, he had been recruited to harvest green peppers and tomatoes in greenhouses that had belonged to the departed Jewish settlers of Gannei Tal. Mr Al Boh is an experienced nurseryman who had beena foreman for more than 20 years, in charge of some 35 workers - until the intifada started in 2000. He had been unemployed since then, and was delighted to get the job in Gannei Tal.

"It wasn't much money, frankly, just 60 shekels (£7) a day, not really enough to make a living. But we were happy to be going to work. We were even more productive than the settlers, I can tell you. It was Palestinian, the project belonged to us, and we wanted it to succeed, to prove to the world that it could succeed."

He and his brother, Abdul Hakim, 42, were engaged by the Gaza Agricultural Project (GAP), launched with $14m (£7m) raised by James Wolfensohn, the former chairman of the World Bank, who had been appointed by President Bush as his special envoy for Gaza disengagement.

Mr Wolfensohn was determined to show that the withdrawal would benefit Palestinians in the Strip, and led the way by putting $1m of his own money into the project. At first it wasn't easy. A few at least of the greenhouses - many of which had produced high quality fruit and vegetables for the European export market - were burned or damaged by angry departing settlers; many more by Palestinians looting or taking destructive revenge against the former settlements. So the first job was was to rehabilitate 740 acres of nurseries, stores and packing stations.

"For two months we were out there cleaning it all up," said Mr Al Boh. But even after the plantation started, the nurseries were prey to regular raids by neighbouring Palestinian clans trying to rob them of valuable equipment.

Nevertheless, the project somehow succeeded in overcoming these obstacles. Plantation of cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and strawberries covered just under 600 acres. The GAP was able to provide desperately needed jobs not only to some 4,500 direct labourers, but also 1,000 indrect workers in engineering, agricultural supplies and other services. And this in a territory where unemployment was already at 33 per cent. (It rose to 41 per cent in 2006.) Production levels gradually reached an internationally competitive 120 tons a day. But because of closures imposed by Israel, citing security as grounds, especially but not only at the main Karni-Israel cargo crossing, only a small proportion of the harvest was likely to reach the outside world.

Frustrated by the delays and closures, Mr Wolfensohn, who has now long left his job, accused Israel of "foot dragging" over the crossings and said it seemed "loath to relinquish control, almost acting as though there has been no withdrawal." He persuaded Condoleezza Rice this time last year to broker a groundbreaking agreement between Israel and the then Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority to open Gaza's crossings, including Karni.

The agreement had an immediate effect. The average number of outgoing trucks at Karni doubled to around 66 a day until the end of December. But the improvement was short-lived. The crossing was opened for only ten days in January; and, according to the UN's Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, there has been "little improvement" since then. The problem, as Ayed Abu Ramadan, the head of the GAP says, was that peak periods of crossing closures coincided first with the peak of demand in the European market and, in March and April, with the peak of the GAP's production.

The security concerns which Israel cited in defence of the closures were not baseless. On 26 April, a Palestinian group, believed to be members of the Dogmush clan, did attempt an attack on Karni. But this was foiled by Palestinian security. And no militant attacks, the UN report points out, were reported after that, until August 30, when the Israeli military announced the discovery of a tunnel leading to Karni. In the first quarter of 2006 - a crucial time for the project - the crossing was completely closed for 46 days, or 53 per cent of the working time. But the UN report points out that in 2004 and 2005, when the level of military activity in Gaza on both sides was much higher - including, Mr Abu Ramadan says, attacks on Karni - the crossing was closed for less than a fifth of the time.

The result of this was that just four per cent of the 12,700 tons of vegetables and fruit produced by the GAP actually made it out of Gaza. The vast bulk of produce rotted, or was handed out for free inside Gaza by the workers. The project was closed in early May, well before before the end of the season, because of the heavy losses became unsustainable in the absence of revenue.

The Al Boh brothers and the 4,500 workers were laid off without compensation. "We were really hurt when it closed," Mr Al Boh said. "When we heard the lorries were getting to Karni and then not being allowed across, we went nuts, crazy."

The Wolfensohn dream was over; and with it the jobs of some 5,500 Gaza workers. Pointing out that Israel itself would have benefited by up to $12m in sales of supplies to the project like fertiliser, Mr Abu Ramadan uses a biblical, and specifically Gazan analogy: "Like Samson, they pulled the temple down over themselves as well as their enemies." He concludes from all this that Israel's aim was deliberately to lower what he calls the "threshold of Palestinian aspirations".

Mark Regev, the spokesman for Israel's foreign ministry, adamantly rejects this interpretation, saying, "Israel has every interest in having a stable, economically active Palestinian neighbour" in Gaza.

Although the crossing closure problems started well before the January elections, they were clearly compounded by Hamas's victory. The Rice agreement with the old PA, says Mr Regev, became much more difficult with the new government. And he points out that it was not just Israel or the US, but also the EU which shunned the Hamas government.

For the Al Boh bothers, this was all short-sighted on the part of Israel. And there were certainly Western diplomats at the time of the Rice agreement who hoped Israel would weigh more heavily the long term potential gains in their own security.

"If a man gets a job and can earn a living, he will not think of fighting Israel," says Mr Al Boh, "he will think about supporting his family." Whether or not that's too simple, his brother Abdul still hopes against hope that the GAP - now formally wound down - can somehow be allowed once more to give Gaza's economy a chance. "We want the Europeans to put pressure on Israel so we can start again," he said.

Against the background of this economic tragedy, the task of sustaining or, in many cases in a territory ravaged by conflict, of restoring the agriculture which existed before disengagement becomes all the more vital.

For Hassan Sha'er, after five years of farming - and often not farming - on the frontline, and sometimes literally under fire, there is actually now some hope at last amid the deepening economic gloom of Gaza. The Sha'er family have been farming at the southern edge of Khan Yunis for as long as anyone can remember. But because the 11-acre farm was also on the northern edge of the Morag settlement, Hassan and his six brothers lost all their trees, including 50 mature olive trees and 35 younger trees, to Israel's bulldozers. For a whole year at the height of the conflict, he says, they didn't even dare to cultivate their land.

"The settlers would draw a line across my fields with the bulldozer," he says, "to show the furthest we could go. And each time it would be further in." Hassan's brother Ishaer points to the holes left by gunfire riddle the family water tower - used for drinking as well as irrigation.

Losing his trees was perhaps the worst aspect of those dangerous years. "Seeing a tree uprooted is like having your heart uprooted," he says, adding quickly that it was a lot more than an emotional blow. He said the trees, provided not only pickling olives for the 45 adults and children in the family, but also some 320kg a season of olive oil.

Mr Sha'er knows something about the problems of not being able to export. Before the intifada, and when Gaza enjoyed much more open access, he sold potatoes for the West Bank market. "A whole box [18kg in weight] would fetch 18 to 20 shekels," he says. "In Gaza you would only get 10 or 11 shekels." But by now content with serving the local markets-beyond family subsistence, his problem has been much less market access than actual production.

The family, once prosperous, was soon heavily in debt; they sold what assets they could, including the dowries of four married sisters, and managed to raise some $35,000. But it still wasn't enough to allow the now deeply demoralised Mr Ishaer and his brothers to restore the farm to anything like what it had been before, particularly since any new trees would take at least three years to bear fruit.

It was at this point that the Welfare Association stepped in to help the family as part of their land rehabilitation programme. The programme has helped 86 Gaza farmers flatten the deep furrows left by Israeli bulldozers on their land form which the trees were uprooted, and then replant. The Association decided to replant six dunums (one and a half acres) of the Sha'ers' land with olive and citrus seedlings, and to prepare another nine, since the family had a battered tractor available.

Apart from the obvious economic benefit, the Association's Maha el-Shwwa says there is not only a social benefit of not only replanting trees but "replanting the farmer on his land." It is a modest but vital means of not swelling immigration to the city and adding to "the crowds of unemployed men on the streets." For Mr Sha'er and his family, it means the chance of getting their old life back again.