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Palestinian farmers who took over the greenhouses of Jewish settlers after the disengagement have harvested and exported their first crop, sending eight tons of peppers by truck to Israeli wholesalers on Sunday, the head of the Palestinian agency managing the project said.
The chairman of the Palestine Economic Development Company, Basil Jaber, said that Sunday's shipment was a trial run and by the end of the year growers expected to export an unspecified quantity of peppers, cherry tomatoes and strawberries to European and other markets.
The greenhouses, which cover about 750 acres, were bought for about $14 million by a private foundation headed by Yossi Beilin and funded with donations from US Jews, in the hope of giving a boost to the ailing Gaza economy and saving the jobs of about 3,500 Palestinians who used worked in the settlements.
US mediator James Wolfensohn, who shuttled between the Israeli and Palestinian governments to work for Gaza's economic recovery after the pullout persuaded a group of wealthy American Jews, including publisher Mortimer Zuckerman, to bankroll purchase of the greenhouses. Wolfensohn put up $500,000 (â‚¬410,000) of his own cash.
Jaber could not say how much was earned on Sunday's shipment or what projected revenues would be for the rest of the growing season, which finishes at the end of December.
The departing settlers stripped the greenhouses of irrigation equipment and other operating gear, which had to replaced quickly after the September pullout to catch the remainder of the 2005 growing season.
"We have 2,700 greenhouses and we already started harvesting in 2,000 of them for this season," Jaber said. "It makes us proud. This land was a symbol of occupation and many people were doubting our ability to rehabilitate this land, but now we have proven that we, as Palestinians, are able to manage our lives, to farm our land and to do our own business."
The first shipment passed into Israel through the Karni terminal, Gaza's main goods crossing point, which has been sporadically closed by the Israelis since the Gaza pullout.
As part of an agreement on border crossings brokered last month by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Israel pledged to allow the passage of all agricultural produce from Gaza this season and to raise the flow of export traffic in general to at least 150 trucks by the end of the year, and at least 400 a day by the end of 2006.
The World Bank says that before Israel's Gaza pullout, an average of 35 trucks left Gaza every day, but the number has dropped significantly since then.