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Last Updated: Friday, 17 March 2006, 18:28 GMT
Gaza farmers dumping their crops
By Alan Johnston
BBC News, Gaza

Palestinian farmer tending his crops in one of the greenhouses
The farmers inherited the greenhouses last summer
The tractor trailer rose slowly and began to dump its load of perfect, red and green peppers onto a stretch of wasteland in southern Gaza.

Later a herd of goats wandered over and began feasting on the great mound of vegetables that lay shining in the sun.

In this poverty-stricken place, farmers are being forced to throw away tons and tons of produce that ought to be fetching high prices in the supermarkets of Europe.

The problem is that the Israelis have blocked Gaza's export route.

"We have buyers around the world," says Bassil Jabir, who heads a major, greenhouse-based market garden venture.

"Everyone is interested in buying our produce.

"But we can't get it out of Gaza. On a daily basis we are losing $120,000."

Attack fears

Almost all goods coming and going from Gaza must pass through the huge cargo terminal on the territory's border with Israel, at a place called Karni.

But during the past three months it has been shut for well over 40 days.

Tomato crop
The farmers say they cannot get their fruit to market

Israel has cited security concerns. The terminal was attacked by Palestinian militants early last year. Several Israelis died.

And now the Israeli military says it believes another attack may be in the offing.

"The problem is a specific terrorist threat against the crossing," says an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mark Regev.

"The minute that threat is behind us, Karni can be operational again."

Israel has offered a smaller, temporary, alternative exit point from Gaza. But the Palestinian Authority has rejected this.

It is insisting that the large specialised terminal at Karni is kept working - as agreed in a deal between the two sides.

Palestinian officials would seem to believe that the any change to the agreed border regime would disadvantage them in the long term.

Philanthropy

While the row has gone on, the prolonged stoppages of trade have had a crippling impact on Gaza's already shattered economy.

Let the produce of the Palestinians leave. Let the Gazans live
Bassil Jabir

And no business has suffered more than Mr Jabir's new market garden project.

When the Israelis withdrew from Gaza last summer the Palestinians inherited dozens and dozens of vast greenhouses - built in the settlements during decades of occupation.

In a rare gesture of goodwill, wealthy Jewish American philanthropists paid the departing settlers around $14m (8m) to leave the hothouses standing.

Mr Jabir's firm poured another $20m into the venture, and suddenly Gaza had a potentially rich industry on its hands.

But the border closures and export problems have pushed the whole project to the brink of collapse.

Local looters

Palestinians are convinced that Gaza is being deliberately strangled - that the closures are more about politics than security.

The greenhouses
The departing settlers got around $14m for the greenhouses

"The international community has to exert every possible power," says Mr Jabir.

"It has to tell the Israeli government to allow the private sector to flourish. Open the borders.

"Let the produce of the Palestinians leave. Let the Gazans live."

On top of the export difficulties, Mr Jabir has suffered from Gaza's chronic security problems.

Looters recently emerged from nearby towns and refugee camps to do hundreds-of-thousands of dollars worth of damage to a number of greenhouse complexes.

Mr Jabir says the troubles that his high profile project has endured send the worst possible signal for Gaza.

"This is a message to every investor: 'Don't come - there's no hope of any investment flourishing.'"




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