It will be a disaster for the Gaza
hothouse project if the Palestinians cannot export within two weeks produce grown on the 2,000 dunams of agricultural infrastructure purchased this summer from Israeli farmers, Palestinian Authority
Finance Minister Salaam Fayad
told The Jerusalem Post
"It's essential that we are able to ship [produce] out, or the company won't be able to manage," said Fayad as he munched on a small green pepper he had received in the hothouses during a visit on Sunday.
If the produce can't be moved out to market, "the stuff will rot. It is perishable."
He and Quartet special envoy James Wolfensohn toured Sunday
the former Israeli hothouses, which are now run by the Palestinian Company for Economic Development, headed by Fayad.
The two men spoke Monday night in Jerusalem at an event organized by the Israel Council on Foreign Relations
. They talked about the importance of an agreement over the passage
of goods and people in and out of Gaza for the peace process and the economic viability of a future Palestinian state.
Both Fayad and Wolfensohn reported that the Gaza hothouses, purchased with $13.5 million of donor funds and half a million of Wolfensohn's own money following Israel's evacuation
from the area, are now being successfully cultivated by the Palestinians.
In spite of the Palestinian looting of some 30 to 40 percent of hothouses in the days after the pullout, Fayad said that the farms "are now in pristine condition. All of them are restored."
Wolfensohn said that in the coming months produce will be grown on about 3,000 dunams of land. That is only 15-20% of the total scope of the project, said Wolfensohn.
In a press release Monday, PCED director-general Basel Jaber explained that the project, when completed, will encompass 14,000 dunams of land, of which 4,000 dunams will be used for local market produce and 10,000 for export. It will provide jobs for 6,000 workers, he said.
In speaking to the Jerusalem gathering while taking a break from ongoing negotiations over the passages, Wolfensohn sidestepped specific questions about an impending agreement over the passage of goods and people at the Rafah crossing
on the border of Egypt and Gaza.
Wolfensohn denied reports that he would leave in frustration this week if he fails to broker a deal between the Palestinians and the Israelis with respect to the Rafah passage and a possible reopening of the Karni crossing.
He said that in the last 20 weeks of working on issues relating to the development of the Palestinian economy post-disengagement he has had moments of frustration and optimism.
While he has extended his contract with the Quartet from the end of December to March, Wolfensohn spoke bluntly about his frustrations regarding the lack of progress in the negotiations.
"I find it quite difficult indeed," said Wolfensohn. While at times in the last month he has blamed Israel, in his talk on Monday he was careful not to make accusations against either side.
"I am not apportioning blame," he said. "I am simply observing that it's tough. Maybe I'm not up to it. Maybe someone else is. I am not threatening to walk out; I have just agreed to stay on."
In past trips he had stressed about the question of his missions' success or failure. "I had tremendous anguish about whether we are doing it right or wrong and what we can do technically to bring the parties together," he said.
This time, however, Wolfensohn has been calmer because he has come to understand that the success of the negotiations is important to the people in the region. His sole role is to offer them help if they want it.
"It is no longer my issue. That is why I came tonight, it's an issue for the Israeli and Palestinian people.
"You have to decide what you want to do. If you want to blow each other up, I have a nice house in Wyoming and in New York
and in Australia
and I will watch with sadness as you are doing it." If the two sides want to move forward on social and economic issues, however, then he is here now to help them do that, he said, adding that he has access to the powerful people necessary for the task.
With elections looming on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides, there are only a few days left in which a meaningful agreement can be reached, he said.
"Now is the moment to decide if you want to take the risk for peace," said Wolfensohn.