Journal: A bitter end to a dream project

Palestinian-owned Gush Katif greenhouses are shut down because there's no way to export the produce.

morag greenhouse 29888aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
morag greenhouse 29888aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Hattem Samar is performing a bitter job. In the stifling heat of the former Israeli greenhouses he has worked in for the last six months, he is uprooting row after row of robust sweet pepper plants whose fruits withered on the vine like so many other grand plans in this war-torn and destitute coastal territory.
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"Everyone here feels awful," Samar, 27, said, shaking the sand from the peppers' roots as he yanked them from the ground. "If it ends like this, it will be really terrible." These greenhouses were to be the shining light of a new Gaza free of Israel's hand. Instead, they are yet another symbol of how even the most pure and good intentions are so easily devoured by a conflict that seemingly knows no end and spares no one and nothing the scars of its attrition. In the final days of Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last summer, a group of American philanthropists - mostly Jews - bought these greenhouses from the departing settlers for $14 million, donating the 3,160 dunams (790 acres) of sand dunes the settlers had turned into fertile farmland to the 1.3 million Palestinians of the Gaza Strip. In what was billed as a national rehabilitation project, the publicly owned Palestinian Economic Development Corporation poured $20m. into renovating the greenhouses. In the process, they hired 6,000 workers from around Gaza, more than twice the number the Jewish farmers employed during their tenure here. In addition to providing much-needed jobs for Gaza's moribund economy, in the greenhouses there was legitimate potential for bringing in high revenue streams. According to Bassil Jabir, the director of the PEDC, exports from the greenhouse produce should have brought in around $16m. this season alone, and as much as $50m. per year in the not-too-distant future. Their success in growing the produce was unmitigated. Despite widespread looting after the Israeli withdrawal in September, occasional attacks from Palestinian militant groups looking to claim territory, and the challenge of managing their own crops for the first time, the Palestinian greenhouses produced over 12,000 tons of what one Israeli exporter who tested the fruits and vegetables called "very high quality" produce. Indeed, the tomatoes, tasted by this reporter, were as sweet as apples. But this is Gaza, where dreams more often than not succumb to overwhelming realities. In November, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice brokered a deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that called for the only goods crossing leading out of the fenced-in Gaza Strip, Karni, to remain open except in cases of exceedingly specific security threats. But during the height of the harvest season, from January until now, Karni was closed by Israel more often than it was open, sometimes for weeks straight, because of what Israel said were continuous security threats from Palestinian terrorists. Indeed, in April, an attack on the Karni terminal by two cars of terrorists brandishing automatic weapons was thwarted by Palestinian security forces. Additionally, two attacks on the Erez pedestrian crossing in the north have been foiled by Israeli forces since disengagement. The result of Karni's closure, Jabir said, is that only 1,500 tons of produce made it out of Gaza. Instead of winding up on the dinner plates of Europeans, as was the plan, the cherry tomatoes, sweet peppers, hot peppers and strawberries were occasionally given away to charity groups but mostly dumped in the surrounding sand dunes. (The PEDC made good on a pledge not to sell their produce in the Gaza markets, undercutting other growers here.) "Can you imagine what it felt like to dump the fruit out into the wadi?" said Tesir Farraj, 47, a father of 10 from Gaza City who spoke Hebrew from many years spent as a construction worker in Israel. "All we needed was a crossing or a port we controlled by ourselves and we could have sold all this to the world and brought in so much money. We could have had another 6,000 workers come here." Jabir blames "the Israeli occupation" for ruining what should have been a crowning achievement for Gazans. But he also pulls no punches in regard to the Palestinian militants who did their fair share in scuttling the enterprise. "I blame everyone and condemn everyone who prevented me from making this business," he said. The fate of the greenhouses is now in the balance. With a first-season revenue of less than $1m. when at least $16m. was anticipated, the PEDC has no money to pay its workers for April and May and recently sent a letter to all the remaining farmers and engineers stating that the project would be terminated at the end of the month. But this is not a zero-sum game, and Palestinians were not the only losers in the Gaza greenhouse endeavor. Back in November, Jabir met with Avi Kadan, the managing director of the Israeli export firm Adafresh. Kadan agreed to export the first season of fruits and vegetables produced by the PEDC to Europe. If all went well, Adafresh was to expand the export markets to include the United States and Russia by the end of the year. Though Adafresh's financial deficit amounted to the relatively small sum of $118,000 spent on unused packaging, Kadan bemoaned the loss of millions of dollars which could have flowed in, not to mention the hundreds of lost hours spent on the project. "I blame myself, that I'm living here [in Israel]," Kadan said, when asked who he thought was at fault for the project's failure. "It's very difficult to make regular, normal business between two countries that are at war with each other. How can you control the bombs?" What will happen to the greenhouses, now worth $45m., is unknown. Jabir says the project is finished unless circumstances change drastically. "I doubt anyone will have the guts and the mind to invest," he said. If someone did, Kadan said, he was willing to try again next season despite the "disaster" of this one. "Why not? I plan to help the people there, I want to work with them. I don't calculate only on a profit basis," Kadan said. "I'll cry again, but at the end of the day I think I'll succeed." Meanwhile, the 6,000 workers are closing up shop for at least this season, if not for good, lamenting their lost jobs in which they took so much pride. "We spent all day and night here building this," said Eid Siam, 28, the chief engineer for the 400 dunams of greenhouses in this former settlement. He added that, in the first week after the Israelis left Gaza, he and many of the workers slept here. "We were so tired, but we kept on going because we wanted the project to succeed." "It felt so great to work on my own land," said Mustafa Laham, 37, a father of six who worked for Israelis here for 10 years before last summer's withdrawal. He also spoke in Hebrew. "There were better salaries. We came to work without being checked by security. It was really fun to come here every day." But even more important than their wounded national pride is the stark reality they face of finding work in Gaza's swiftly contracting economy. "Yihiyeh tov [It will be good]," Laham said, nodding into the distance. Samar, taking a short break from pulling out the pepper plants, was not so sure. He was the only one out of eight people in his home who had work. "No one knows what will happen, or what we'll do," he said. "The situation is bad for everyone." With those words, he turned around, and continued destroying the fruits of his labor.