From bombing center to strawberry capital of W. Bank

From bombing center to s

There was a time when Kalkilya was the focus of bomb making and terrorism but a new program is aiming to turn this Palestinian city into the strawberry capital of the West Bank. The first crop of the ruby red fruit in this pilot program is halfway to harvest. The Palestinians hope to be able to cash in on the lucrative Christmas markets in Europe and possibly sell strawberries to a major international ice cream producer. "I grow strawberries here, and this is where it starts," said Ahmed Zed, 31, a Palestinian carrot farmer who decided to take up the risky endeavor and grow strawberries. "Inshallah (God willing) we'll get the support we need and we'll become millionaires," he told The Media Line during a visit to his fields, adjacent to the security barrier Israel set up five years ago. This is the first attempt to grow strawberries in the West Bank. In the shadow of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, this pilot project, backed by international donors, has seen Israeli agriculture experts helping the Palestinian economy by developing a new "cash crop" highly in demand both in Israel and abroad. For the past few months, Israeli agriculture advisers have been training Palestinian farmers in growing these delicious, but highly sensitive fruit. Sponsored by the Flemish Foreign Ministry and facilitated by the Peres Center for Peace, Israeli experts have been supplying Palestinian farmers with irrigation equipment, nylon, pesticides and training that will help them raise the high-quality strawberries required for export. "We strongly believe that the only solution for peace is a two-state solution," said Oren Blonder, Director of Agriculture, at the Water and Environment Department of the Peres Center for Peace. "In order to do that we believe that one of the tools needed is to strengthen the Palestinian economy." "We chose strawberries because it is a high value 'cash crop.' But more than that, this is the first time that strawberries have been introduced into the West Bank and we hope that it will lead to the establishment of a new industry there." Blonder said that the demand inside Israel far surpassed supply and any future Palestinian strawberry yields would not harm local Israeli market, quite the contrary. The Peres Center for Peace and others have approached various ice cream manufacturers as possible industrial markets. Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream Company in Israel confirmed that it has examined the possibility but that no agreement has yet been reached. Strawberries thrive on loamy sand and the fields around Kalkilya are the first place where they are being cultivated by the Palestinians in the West Bank. Israel has developed the prized Yuval, Orly and Hadas varieties and cultivates some 4,000 dunams (1,000 acres) of strawberries. In the past, Israel trained Palestinians in the Gaza Strip to grow them and production there peaked at about 3,000 dunams due to the near-perfect conditions. But that market fell apart when violence erupted after the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, and Israel's subsequent blockade of fruit exports. "Our hope here is if this situation will continue that Kalkilya will stop being the capital of terrorism and bombing as it was before and will become the capital of strawberries," said Lt. Gal Levant, Israeli Liaison Officer for International Organizations in the Civil Administration. In another month, the harvest of the new crop will begin in Kalkilya. A successful strawberry crop is expected to have a major impact on the local economy. In a society with relatively low labor costs, it is particularly profitable. The goal is to produce some 800 dunams (200 acres) of strawberries which will provide some 1,500 jobs and support over 300 families. Moaddi Sameer, Agriculture Liaison between Israel's Civil Administration and the Palestinian Authority, has been with the project since its inception, despite a personal tragedy. His son, Yusef a soldier in the Israeli army, was killed in fighting with the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip earlier this year. "The main thing is to help them make a living," Sameer said during a visit to the fields. "No less important are the friendly ties and cooperation which are very important to strengthen the relations between us and the Palestinians. After all, we are fated to live side by side and when your neighbor is satisfied then you can live in peace and quiet." Muhammad Sayid Lahham, head of the Flower and Vegetable Division at the Palestinian Authority Agriculture Ministry, said the Israeli help was needed "in order to acquire expertise and develop skills among Palestinian farmers." "This is a beginning as you can see," Lahham said as he examined a small strawberry bud poking out of the nylon ground covering. "But it's going to grow and the yield is going to be excellent." The entire visit to the field was escorted by Palestinian security forces. It was important for them to show that the situation on the ground was calm. "The crop will be harvested right before Christmas," said Blonder, "and we hope it is marketed as a peace crop."