Left to Rot in Gaza

Tomatoes and peppers from the Palestine Economic Development Corp. are dumped behind greenhouses in Netzarim. Closure of the main crossing into Israel, where the produce from the big Gaza Strip grower is sold or packaged for shipment to Europe, has resulted in millions of dollars in losses.
Tomatoes and peppers from the Palestine Economic Development Corp. are dumped behind greenhouses in Netzarim. Closure of the main crossing into Israel, where the produce from the big Gaza Strip grower is sold or packaged for shipment to Europe, has resulted in millions of dollars in losses. (Photos By Scott Wilson -- The Washington Post)
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 19, 2006

NETZARIM, Gaza Strip -- The harvest is underway inside a row of greenhouses here on the grounds of a razed Israeli settlement. But most of the tomatoes and sweet peppers, usually shipped to European markets, will rot in a nearby ravine.

"We keep getting it, but we don't know what to do with it," said Abdul Fatah al-Eilah, the greenhouse manager, as workers stacked boxes of vegetables in a storage shed while tractors towing flatbeds full of produce lined up to enter.

The main trade passage between the Gaza Strip and Israel has been closed for much of the year, despite an agreement brokered by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in November that required Israel to "ensure the continued opportunity to export." Israeli security concerns, heightened by Hamas's parliamentary victory in January and the almost daily rocket fire from Gaza, have rendered the deal largely moot.

To protect Gaza's small farmers from competition by Eilah's Palestine Economic Development Corp. and its 1,000 acres of greenhouses, the corporation is barred from selling its produce locally. But without regular access to the outside world, the corporation has had to donate some produce to local charities and dump the rest. Losses so far add up to millions of dollars.

"The government will likely have to give this away," Eilah said of an operation once considered the key to Gaza's economic future.

The lost harvest is the most recognizable sign of Gaza's declining fortunes six months after Israel's evacuation. It is also a telling indicator of Israel's evolving policy toward the Palestinian territories as Hamas, known formally as the Islamic Resistance Movement and at war with the Jewish state, prepares to take political power.

Unreliable trade passages, frozen Israeli tax transfers that helped pay salaries and lapsed permits of Palestinians who work in Israel are evidence of a broader disengagement, one that Israeli security officials say they hope to accelerate once Hamas installs its cabinet this month.

The Israeli defense establishment plans to resurrect a proposal to ban thousands of Palestinian workers from Israel, seal trade passages and end utility services once the Palestinian Authority has arranged alternative sources. Behind the push is the belief, promoted by senior security officials, that Hamas's election has made it all but impossible to sustain economic and political relations with the Palestinian territories, at least in the near term.

Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose Kadima party is far ahead in opinion polls heading into Israel's March 28 elections, chose another approach to the caretaker Palestinian government last month. But Olmert has said he may adopt a stricter policy after Hamas assumes control of the Palestinian ministries.

That will happen at about the time Israel concludes its own election, which is shaping up as a referendum on Olmert's proposal to withdraw unilaterally from parts of the West Bank. Olmert has said he intends to draw Israel's final borders over the course of his four-year term, consolidating scattered Jewish settlements in the West Bank into larger blocs on the side of a separation barrier that Israel intends to keep.

Carrying out that move, designed to ensure the longevity of a Jewish majority inside Israel's final boundaries, would also entail the economic separation now quickening in Gaza. A World Bank assessment last week said frozen tax transfers, trade restrictions and future reductions in foreign aid would result in "a one-year contraction of economic activity equivalent to a deep depression," warning that per capita income in the territories would fall 30 percent this year.

As those sources dry up in Gaza, an economy dependent on public salaries, agriculture and foreign aid to sustain its 1.3 million people is already lifeless. Regular rocket fire into southern Israel, carried out by the radical group Islamic Jihad, has turned the northern strip into an artillery range. Prices have soared in stores as the supply of flour, sugar and dairy products that come from Israel is constantly interrupted.


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