© The Financial Times Ltd 2013 FT and 'Financial Times' are trademarks of The Financial Times Ltd.
Last updated: February 27, 2013 4:13 pm
In a hothouse in the southern Gaza Strip, farmworkers are harvesting fragrant red peppers destined for Europe, packing them into boxes with a logo of a green leaf and the words: ‘Palestine Crops – from Palestine Land to Global Market.’
The co-operative also grows chilli peppers, cherry tomatoes, herbs and flowers and has a small foothold in export markets, selling some of its produce to supermarkets in the Netherlands and the UK.
But the company, like Gaza’s other exporters, has a tenuous hold on its foreign markets. Its crops leave for Europe via the border at Kerem Shalom, the only one of six crossings through which Israel commercial goods to enter its territory from Gaza.
During last November’s military escalation between Israel and Hamas, the crossing was closed for about a month. The farm’s crop of basil – a product with no market in Gaza – had to be uprooted, and today lies in desiccated black clumps outside one of the hothouses.
Israel on Tuesday again shut the Kerem Shalom crossing after militants fired a rocket across the border, again closing the sole route by which Gaza’s exports reach the outside world.
“If we know that the terminal is open, we can guarantee the market’s need, but nobody has that guarantee,” says Jamal Abu Al Naja, the co-operative’s president. “It’s a risky business that we have now, but we need to keep our position on markets.”
Since Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, Israel has imposed a strict blockade on imports into Gaza, fuelling a black market in goods smuggled in via tunnels from Egypt.
Less remarked upon are the strict curbs imposed on Gaza’s small coterie of export companies, which sell products such as strawberries, flowers and furniture. Palestinians say the restrictions are suppressing honest livelihoods in a territory where about 80 per cent of the population subsists on humanitarian aid.
“The catastrophe in Gaza is not an earthquake or a flood, it’s man-made,” says Hamdi Shaqqura, of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza City. “Gazans are not lazy people; they are very active and skilful, and need opportunities and an immediate lift of the closure so they can produce and export.”
Under terms of last November’s ceasefire, fishermen can now cast their nets up to six (rather than three) nautical miles out to sea. Farmers can graze or grow crops up to 300 meters from the Israeli border fence.
However, human rights campaigners have documented cases of farmers and fishermen being injured or killed by Israeli Defence Force soldiers patrolling the border since the end of the conflict.
Gazan exporters, meanwhile, face a circuitous, costly and difficult path to foreign markets for their goods, all of which transit at the Kerem Shalom crossing.
At the border, the farmers’ co-operative is required to load its boxes of produce on to one metre square pallets that are then fed through a security scanner. They are then reloaded on to a convoy to take them to the other side.
The procedure takes time and puts the farm at a cost disadvantage, because the pallets hold just 50 boxes, compared to the 250 Israeli farmers fit on to their standard-size pallets.
“For sure, the Israeli farmers have a benefit,” says Mr Al Naja. Once screened, the co-operative’s goods are sent to an Israeli company that exports them on to Europe.
Before the blockade, export goods were allowed to leave Gaza at the Karni crossing near Gaza City, which was faster and more efficient.
According to the Palestine Trade Centre, a Ramallah-based trade promotion company, the number of truckloads leaving Gaza is just 3 per cent of the number measured in 2005, before Israel evacuated the territory.
Israel says that it needs to scan everything that leaves Gaza because goods or their packaging may contain explosive devices.
“One of the problems we face is that we don’t have a partner on the other side as we have in other customs arrangements that we particularly trust,” says Paul Hirschson, an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman.
However, Mr Hirschson adds: “There’s a major liberalisation under way”, as Israel figures out secure ways to confirm that products will not explode. The process has been completed for flowers, he says, and furniture – formerly a big export good from Gaza – is on the list.
Any such liberalisation would be a lifeline for companies such as the Sousy Furniture Company, a family business in Gaza City that has seen its once-thriving export business dry up. Since the beginning of the blockade in 2007, it has been prohibited from exporting to Israel and the West Bank,
The company has tried to find export markets farther afield and explored selling in Jordan, but after a visit to a trade fair calculated getting its furniture there – via two Israeli border checks – would be too expensive.
The company has cut its payroll from 150 people before to about 25 now, or 50 in summer, wedding season in Gaza, when sales usually rise.
Mujahed Al Sousy holds governments on both sides of the border accountable for letting the issue slide. “It’s a political closure,” he says.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.