Voicing their desire for more flexibility at IDF checkpoints, increased farming equipment imports and opportunities to export crops, some 200 Gazan farmers came to Tel Aviv on Thursday to engage in a face-to-face dialogue with a senior defense official.
“We can overcome this problem,” Esaam Dawwas, quality control manager for the Beit Lahiya Cooperative Association, told The Jerusalem Post, following the discussion. “We need the Israeli government to deal with facilities for farmers, open the checkpoints and send us all the machines for agriculture and fertilizer for the farmers. We can solve this problem.”
Dawwas and his colleagues came to participate in the third and final day of the annual Agritech International Agricultural Exhibition and Conference at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds. They took part in a conversation in Arabic with Col. Grisha Yakubovich, head of the civil department at the Office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories. Among the key issues to arise were the need to boost agricultural trade allowances, and to increase the availability of supplies crucial to farming.
“What happened here today is actually the fruit of cooperation between us and the Palestinian Authority,” Yakubovich told the Post after the dialogue. “This is not something regular that you see people from Gaza being brought out here in buses. That’s why it was so important for me to talk to them... and listen to the voice from the field.”
The Gazans were among 35,000 guests from 117 countries who attended the event, organized by the Agriculture Research Organization’s Volcani Center. On Wednesday, about 400 Palestinians from the West Bank attended the exhibition, Yakubovich confirmed.
“The agriculture sector is very important in Gaza,” said Mohammed Skaik, Gaza programs manager at the Palestine Trade Center. “We have faced many problems, in terms of three wars, blockade and siege.”
Acknowledging that Israel has improved trade facilitation and the transfer of agricultural goods through the Kerem Shalom crossing to the southern Gaza Strip, Skaik stressed that the status quo is still insufficient.
“If you compare this amount to before the closure in June 2007, now it’s only about 5 percent,” Skaik said.
In June 2007, Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip from the PA, prompting Israel and Egypt to seal their borders with the territory.
Basic raw materials necessary to agriculture are lacking, while Gazans have only recently gained the ability to export two types of produce to Israel, Skaik said. In March, the Israeli government began to authorize the export of tomatoes and eggplants to Israel – the first such movement of produce from Gaza to Israel in almost eight years – in order to help meet the needs of the shmita sabbatical year.
Another particularly problematic issue that Skaik cited is the location and operational capacity of the Kerem Shalom crossing, which he descried as “far away, deep in Gaza.” Exchanging commodities there requires loading and unloading for three different truck transfers, which is costly and hurts produce quality, he explained.
Meanwhile, the 1-meter loading pallet height – which Israel limits due to security concerns – provides less space for crops and tools, Skaik said. The height could be raised while satisfying Israeli security concerns by employing special scanning devices that the Palestinians received from the Dutch government, he argued.
As for exports to places outside of Israel, Mahmoud Khlael, chairman of the Agricultural Cooperative for Farmers of Strawberries, Vegetables and Flowers, expressed concerns that checkpoint limitations have curbed the amount of Gazan produce exports in general.
“We used to export 1,500 tons per season of strawberries, and because of restrictions at the crossing, this has now been reduced to a few hundred tons only,” Khlael said.
Before 2007, Gazans exported about 200 truckloads daily of vegetables, fruits and flowers, according to Khlael. The restrictions decrease quality of life and cause costs to escalate, he explained.
“We need free trade,” Khlael said. “We want to go back to the period prior to 2007.”
In response to the concerns of the Gazan farmers who attended the dialogue, Yakubovich stressed that many obstacles still exist to improving the status quo – in particular due to the fact that the residents of the Strip “have to deal with Hamas.”
“They said to me throughout the lecture that we are not dealing with politics,” Yakubovich said. “I said that this is an issue of security, and we have to make sure there is security. They want to live their lives and we understand that.”
Regarding increasing the height of the loading pallets, Yakubovich explained that a terrorist could hide or a bomb could be concealed in the infrastructure.
“We understand that it would be cheaper for them, because it would be easier for them to export more,” he said, noting that defense officials would examine the idea of raising the pallet height.
As far as further crop exports from Gaza to Israel are concerned, Yakubovich explained that the Agriculture Ministry authorizes the marketing of produce to Israel, requiring compliance with certain health and quality standards.
“All the things that came from the tunnels [from Sinai into Gaza] in the last decade were uncontrolled,” Yakubovich said. “We don’t know what came from Africa, what type of diseases entered. We checked the products and some were not authorized because of concerns.”
After continuous evaluations, some products have not received clearance for export simply due to the unregulated nature of what grows inside Gazan soil and the resultant concern for Israeli public health, he explained.
“I understand their demands, but on the other hand, they need to understand that there are certain international rules for export,” Yakubovich said.
As for increasing approvals for farming equipment and raw materials to build structures such as greenhouses, he cautioned that in the past, Hamas has built tunnels under greenhouses and used tractors meant for farming for its own activities.
“There’s always tension between their agricultural needs and between the security needs that we have to face,” Yakubovich said. “Hamas is responsible for them but has no problem abusing their facilities.”
Muhammad Zwayyid, a marketing officer for Dutch-funded agricultural project in Gaza, proposed that Israel coordinate with the PA and international organizations to monitor greenhouse construction and ensure that the facilities are being properly used. Allowing for the import of liquid rather than dry fertilizers, which he said cannot be used for “hostile activities,” could help solve the security issue of importing such materials, Zwayyid added.
For Yakubovich, the reality that 200 Palestinians were able to come out of Gaza to Agritech to speak with him was crucial to improving the relationship between neighbors. While the government is striving “to do more” for the farmers, security is still a paramount issue and demands a return of the PA to Gaza, he explained.
“It’s important for us to hear and listen to the problems of the people on the ground,” Yakubovich said. “Now we will start thinking about new ideas or new commitments.”
Skaik said that meeting with Yakubovich was “very helpful” and allowed the farmers to “think aloud about what on-the-ground Gaza needs.
“When we meet people face-to-face we can get actual information about daily life,” Skaik said, stressing the importance of raising Gazans’ income. “If we have good income, we will have good peace.”
“We conveyed our message to the Israeli government represented by [Yakubovich],” Zwayyid added. “So the people talked freely and talked about their demands and their requests. And we are waiting for the response.”
Khlael expressed hope that speaking directly with an Israeli official would help solve the agricultural problems in Gaza, while Dawwas said that Israel’s move to allow four buses to enter could help bring about an understanding.
“The people are happy today,” Dawwas said. “We hope that in the future, the Israeli government will help the people in Gaza to solve all the problems and to feel like one family.”