Troubled season for Gaza's greenhouses

Palestinians struggle to restart a thriving settlers' business amid poor security.

Rows of irrigation hoses run across the bare sand floor of a greenhouse shell in this former Jewish settlement.

But as Hatem Awad prepares to plant the first crop of tomatoes since Israel handed these plantations over to the Palestinians last month, he is troubled by rips in the sheeting covering the metal greenhouse frame.

"If the wind blows a little bit here, [the saplings] will all fly away," says Mr. Awad, who worked in the greenhouses for Jewish settlers evacuated from here in August. "The winter is coming tomorrow and the viruses will come and kill the plants."

Hoping to save the jobs of thousands of Palestinian farm workers, international donors enlisted by former World Bank President James Wolfensohn paid Jewish settlers $14 million on the eve of the pullout from Gaza. The hope was that they would leave behind at least 800 acres of greenhouses, which grew flowers and produce, to be ready for September planting.

But that hope was jeopardized when Palestinian looters damaged many of the greenhouses, stripping them bare, for instance, of computers that the settlers used to monitor crops. Irrigation pumps were stolen, electricity networks paralyzed, and protective sheeting for the hothouses were torn.

Greenhouses covering one-fourth of the land were damaged during looting after the handover, according to Palestinian officials. The inherited farms have the potential to nearly double the output of the local agriculture industry, the largest domestic private-sector income engine in Gaza's $1 billion economy.

Now as the Palestinians try to restart a lucrative agribusiness that yielded exports to the US and Europe, the greenhouses face an uncertain future. Lax security and unreliable access to foreign markets threatens to turn profit-making ventures that grossed $75 million annually into a money pit.

A microcosm of the redevelopment challenges facing postwithdrawal Gaza, a successful revival of the greenhouses could boost the administration of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, says Khan Younis Mayor Osama al-Farra. If the project falters, this could add steam to Islamic militant groups such as Hamas, who are already vying for control of the new Gaza territory.

While Palestinians spent precious weeks on repair and clean up, orders of strawberry saplings were held up for days at the Karni border checkpoint while Israel closed down the crossing because of a security alert. The new managers of the agricultural estate have won praise for starting to plant earlier this month and hiring 3,000 workers, but the first season under the Palestinians could see a two-thirds drop in sales, says a Boaz Karni, a treasurer at the Economic Cooperation Foundation, an Israeli nongovernmental organization that helped facilitate the transaction.

"It is certainly true that this is going to be a struggle to make work," says Bill Taylor, a US member of the international team headed by Mr. Wolfensohn charged with assisting Gaza's economic recovery.

"Concerns about this being a profit-making enterprise are legitimate," he adds, citing uncertainty over free passage for products slated for export and continuing security problems.

Before Israel forced them to relocate, Israeli settlers cultivated 1,125 acres of land. About three-quarters of the hothouses were covered in the deal, which assumed that Palestinians workers could use their agricultural know-how to keep the businesses alive.

The greenhouses once employed 3,600 workers, the overwhelming majority of them Palestinians. The mediators who solicited foreign donors to compensate the settlers for the hothouses knew that under Palestinian ownership, the businesses had the potential to create another 3,000 nonagricultural jobs to support the venture. "This was a good economic deal in terms of benefit versus the price," says Mr. Taylor.

For the Palestinian laborers who helped clear away the debris around the hothouses before planting, the preparations were accompanied by a mixture of anxiety and hope. With the potential to earn between 50 shekels ($11) and 200 shekels a day, the workers' fortunes are linked to the greenhouses' survival. And yet many wondered if their new bosses would be able to manage the businesses as successfully as the settlers.

Standing just outside a greenhouse, Awad confided that he was tempted to join his old employer on a new farm inside Israel. A few hothouses away, a group of workers complained that the new planting methods were rudimentary compared to those of the Israelis. "The new system isn't sophisticated. Maybe they don't have the experience," says Shahdeh Ajwah. "I dream that one day it will be full of green plants like it used to be."

For the time being, the agricultural estates are owned by the Palestinian government and managed by a private contractor. The goal, however, is to privatize them. In an economy which has traditionally relied on income brought home by Palestinians hired inside Israel as cheap laborers, the greenhouses offer a new source of domestic jobs.

Whether or not the Palestinian Authority (PA) chooses to keep the greenhouses operating over the next few years is still unclear, says Mohammed el-Samhouri, who sat on a ministerial committee that is assessing what to do with assets left behind by the Israelis. Other development projects could become more attractive.

"We're not sure if greenhouses are the best use of our land in that part of Gaza. Agriculture is one option but not necessarily the only option that we have for the future use of land," say Mr. Samhouri. "For political reasons we just wanted to make a statement that we were able to use those greenhouses."

Back in Netzer Hazani, Subhi Firwana, an 18-year veteran of the hothouses, worries that the cleanup job will be terminated and he'll be forced to return to the ranks of Gaza's unemployed. If the PA successfully manages the greenhouses, he will be able to earn a living without seeking work inside Israel. But if the government can't keep out looters, there is little hope for him - not to mention the Palestinians' aspirations for statehood.

"We hope they will learn from their mistakes," Mr. Firwana says, speaking of the Palestinian government. "If I start to destroy instead of building, there won't be a state."

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