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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 August 2005, 14:11 GMT 15:11 UK
Switching Gaza's business assets
By Loolwa Khazzoom

A greenhouse in the southern Gaza Strip
Some Israeli farmers have left their assets in working order in Gaza

Israeli farmer Yechiel Bashari is driving a truck southbound, transporting the remains of his now-dismantled hothouses in Gaza.

A father of six, Mr Bashari has lost $12m worth of assets as a result of Israel's disengagement.

"We are totally traumatized, economically and emotionally," Bashari says of his family's loss.

"I can't believe [Israel] destroyed our home, our dreams, everything we developed over the past 30 years."

Mr Bashari, whose parents were Middle Eastern Jewish refugees to Israel, has a feeling of deja vu about the evacuation.

"It's happened to us twice," he says. "First we were kicked out of Yemen, and now here. But it feels even worse here, because this is the Jewish homeland."

Left behind

Mr Bashari chose to remove as many of his assets as he could, confident that he can start over elsewhere.

But many Israeli farmers decided to leave their assets in working order in Gaza - thanks to the efforts of the Economic Cooperation Foundation (ECF), a non-governmental Israeli peace organization, and international envoy and ex-World Bank chief James Wolfensohn.

Getting settlers to confer assets to Palestinians was not easy, because it went against their ideology
Boaz Karni, Economic Cooperation Foundation

"The ECF realized that if we could find someone who would pay the Israeli farmers not just for their assets, but for preparing the season's agriculture, then Palestinian farmers who acquire these lands can immediately just open the water and irrigate, then sell the produce this season," says Boaz Karni, the ECF's treasurer.

"We could help Palestinians immediately profit from greenhouses left behind."

To this end, the ECF approached several countries, asking for donations.

"Most said they were very sympathetic but they'd have to get approval from the Palestinians," Mr Karni recalls.

"But the Palestinians... refused to give them this approval. Palestinian leaders said they didn't want to pay the settlers, even though we explained it was to help the Palestinian farmers."

Israel occupied Gaza in 1967 after the Six-Day War against Egypt. Since then, Israel built numerous settlements there - activities ruled illegal under international law.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) maintains that because of this, it has no obligation to pay anything.

"If they choose to leave something behind, that is their choice," says Nabila Assaf, director of trade development for Paltrade - which is managing the evacuated hothouses until the PA decides how to allocate them.

Palestinian leaders concur that one issue supercedes all others: "Under international law, occupiers are not entitled to be compensated for their occupation," says Palestinian legal expert Ghaith el-Omari.

Securing aid

Gush Katif farmers such as Yechiel Bashari do not accept this view.

"When we got to Gush Katif in the 1970s, there was nothing; just sand dunes 15 metres high," he says.

"It was desert all around, with a smattering of Bedouins who worked with us. We didn't occupy anything. We developed these farmlands. From the sand, we created a paradise."

For the ECF, however, political arguments took a back seat to making sure that millions of dollars of crops did not go to waste.

Trucks waiting in line to be x-rayed, Karni crossing
Border delays are hitting trade

It approached US aid organizers for funds, managing to secure the $15m that Congress had put aside for the agricultural sector in Gaza - only for the PA again to stick to its stance and veto the money.

In a last-ditch effort, Mr Wolfensohn raised $15m in private funds - including his own - to offer the Israeli farmers.

"Getting settlers to confer assets to Palestinians was not easy, because it went against their ideology," Mr Karni says.

"But we convinced them that at least someone would do something good with those assets."

Border delays

The ECF has since handed over $12.5m to an association representing the Gush Katif farmers, and it plans to hand over the remainder once it is assured that the hothouses are indeed in working order and ready for Palestinian profit.

No Palestinian farmers have been assigned to hothouses yet, however, as the PA is waiting to assess what is left behind prior to working out how to allocate it.

Instead, the question uppermost in the minds of the Palestinian leadership is that of how border crossings will affect the export of agricultural goods.

Currently, the only passage out into Israel is through Karni. The crossing has been the site of dozens of terrorist attacks, and amid Israeli allegations that it is used to smuggle suicide bombers and explosives, the security checks at the border post are severe.

Mohammed El-Samhouri, general coordinator of the Palestinian Technical Committee following up on disengagement, says one of the problems is that all produce has to be transferred onto Israeli trucks at the border.

"This is a very inefficient way of getting products across the border from Gaza to Israel," he says.

"It costs money and time and is damaging to the quality of products we want to export to market."

Mr El-Samhouri acknowledges Israel's security concerns - but says there is a better way to handle them.

The Quartet - the US, the European Union, United Nations and Russia - has been involved in meetings between Israeli and Palestinian teams discussing possible solutions to this problem. So far, though, no tangible results have emerged.

Mobile networks

Farming is not the only industry affected by the post-disengagement disagreements between the PA and Israel. Other industries are suffering too - such as telecommunications.

We are not ready to compromise the political issue at the expense of economic worries and concerns
Dr Sabri Saidam, Palestinian Minister of Telecommunications

Israeli cellphone firm Partner Communications, for instance, has antenna towers and infrastructure across the evacuated parts of Gaza.

But there are currently no direct discussions between Partner and Palestinian cellular carrier Jawwal, regarding takeover of these areas.

The Israelis say there were talks about the possibility of Jawwal buying the equipment, but claims that the PA ordered them broken off. The PA and Jawwal, in turn, insist no such talks ever took place.

Regardless of what actually transpired, Awni Zubdeh, chief technical officer of Jawwal, says his company could certainly make use of Partner's established infrastructure.

Dr Sabri Saidam, Palestinian Minister of Telecommunications and IT, says he is well aware of the potential economic ramifications if no transfer takes place.

But he adds: "We are not ready to compromise the political issue at the expense of economic worries and concerns."

In this case, says Moshe Galil, vice-director general of the Israeli Ministry of Telecommunications, the Palestinians will probably get the infrastructure intact, while he promises that fibre-optic and microwave links between Gaza and Israel, and with other countries, will remain intact.

But beyond the communications and the greenhouses preserved by ECF, the transfer of Gaza's assets remains largely a matter of wait-and-see.

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