Gaza: Karni closures a 'catastrophe'

IDF cites security concerns; thousands of Palestinian workers lose jobs.

karni crossing 298 88 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
karni crossing 298 88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
While many of the Gush Katif farmers have yet to plant their crops in new soil, the great hope that the greenhouses they left in Gaza would provide a boon to the Palestinian economy is withering on its own vine. The closure of the Karni goods crossing from Gaza to Israel for three weeks in January and now for ten days and counting in February has led to immense financial loss for the Palestinian farmers and the corporation that took over the greenhouses in August. Additionally, the Israeli export firm which signed on to ship the Gaza-grown produce to Europe, the US and other international markets, has also taken a financial hit from the closing. According to Dr. Bassil Jabir, the CEO of the Palestinian Economic Development Company which is overseeing the production and exports of the produce grown in the former Gush Katif greenhouses, his corporation has lost over $1 million due to the closures and is losing between $40,000 and $100,000 more each day Karni remains closed. "What we are seeing is a real catastrophe," Jabir said. "There is also indirect loss because we haven't been harvesting every day. Therefore the produce stays on the vine and the growth of the seedlings and stems are damaged," he added. As part of the deal brokered by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in November, the Karni crossing was to remain open as much as possible to allow for Palestinian exports from Gaza - such as the greenhouse produce - to make it to the Israeli and international markets. Closing Karni was only to be ordered by Israel in the event of imminent security threats. However, a series of attempted attacks by Palestinian terrorists near Karni and the discovery of what the IDF thinks may be smuggling tunnels underneath the terminal have prompted the long closures, the IDF said. "It's one big disaster," said Avi Kadan, the managing director of Adafresh, the Israeli firm which signed on to ship the Gaza produce overseas. Both Kadan and Jabir were at a December meeting at Karni attended by representatives from the IDF, the Palestinian Authority and USAID, the overseas development agency of the US government, in which the relevant parties all agreed to do their best to keep the crossing open. "I had promises. Everybody said they plan to cooperate and keep the border open, and suddenly in January they closed the border for three weeks for security reasons. "What can you do against security reasons? Nothing," Kadan said. Adafresh's direct losses as result of the closures are nearly $118,000, with indirect losses growing by the day, he added. Before the closures hit, the Palestinians were able to ship around 1,000 tons of strawberries, hot peppers, tomatoes and cherry tomatoes out of Gaza to the Israeli and international markets, Jabir said. However, that left at least 5,500 tons of fruit and vegetables from productive greenhouses stuck in Gaza. In December, Jabir and Kadan estimated that the 3,200 dunams of greenhouses left over from the Gush Katif farmers could yield 30,000 tons of produce and generate $50 million in revenue for the Gaza economy and $14.5 million for Adafresh. This being the first season of their partnership, both had modest expectations of breaking even on the deal or turning a small profit. Now, Jabir complained, the PEDC will lose money on the greenhouses this year, while according to Kadan, Adafresh is hoping the harvest season ending in May can yet be salvaged. The PEDC used to employ over 6,000 Palestinians to work in the greenhouses, though some who had worked for the Jewish farmers before the disengagement reported in December that their hours were reduced. Due to the closures, however, Jabir slashed his workforce to 3,500 and is planning further cuts of as many as 2,000 more jobs. The Gush Katif greenhouses were purchased in August by a group of American philanthropists for $14 million and given to the Palestinians in a deal brokered by Quartet Envoy James Wolfensohn, the former World Bank president who donated $500,000 of his own money to the cause. When the PEDC took control, however, less than half of the greenhouses were in working order, having been looted by Palestinians in the days following the IDF's withdrawal from Gaza or left in disrepair by the departing Gush Katif farmers. The PEDC, a private company owned by the PA, spent an additional $14 million rehabilitating those greenhouses in preparation for their first growing season under Palestinian control. According to Kadan, the 305 tons of Palestinian produce he inspected and shipped to Europe was of high quality, "even after the first closure in January." Both he and Jabir refused to place blame on anyone in particular for the Karni closings. "I am not in politics. I am an investor," Jabir said. "I am doing this business because I was told I would find a way to export my produce. I always knew there would be difficulties, but if we want to encourage economic development for the Palestinians, attract business, and get people jobs, then this is not the way things are done." As an Israeli, Kadan said, he "trusts" that authorities are acting in good faith. "If they tell me it's a security reason, I can't blame and I can't judge them," he said. "Things will get better, it's only a question of time." A US embassy official commenting on the matter said the United States "encourages all parties to work together to strike a proper balance between security concerns and economic opportunity and development."