Withdrawal rankles Israeli farmers in Gaza

Every July, Israeli Michael Goldschmidt, a settler farmer in the Gaza strip, and his Palestinian workers pull up hundreds of thousands of amaryllis bulbs from the sandy soil for export to the United States.

This year, though, when July comes, Mr. Goldschmidt will have to uproot his family instead. They'll be relocating to Israel as part of the government's planned withdrawal from the coastal territory.

A founder of the Ganei Tal settlement who was born in South Africa, Goldschmidt owns five of a total of 1,000 acres of hothouses belonging to Gaza settlers. But with the government's planned withdrawal looming, change is in the air. Goldschmidt's land, and the property of many other Israeli farmers, now hangs in the balance as Israel and the Palestinian Authority decide what to do with them.

While Israel weighs the geopolitics and security issues associated with leaving the Gaza Strip, it is farmers like Goldschmidt who are feeling the lifestyle and value system they have built up coming to an abrupt - and in their view, unjust - end. For them, Gaza is the place where they came as pioneers as early as the 1970s, where they raised their children. It's a place settlers say they have exclusive ownership rights to, derived from Joshua 15 in the Bible. The settlements contravene international law, except as interpreted by Israel.

Goldschmidt says the decision to leave Gaza is a "catastrophe." "I don't sleep at night, my family doesn't sleep at night," he says. "[Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon came here often. He was one of our best friends. He changed his mind just like the wind."

Added to the sense of betrayal are acute financial worries. The compensation the government is offering for his hothouses - $140,000 - does not amount to half of what he will lose from not meeting sales of the 300,000 to 400,0000 amaryllis bulbs that were to be ready in July, Goldschmidt says. He earns about a dollar for each bulb.

The settler farmers will also be losing a source of cheap labor. Palestinians working in Gaza greenhouses make about 40 percent of what Israelis do for similar work inside Israel, according to Salah Abdul-Shafi a Gaza economist.

The pullout is due to begin July 20, with the government hoping the overwhelming majority of settlers will leave voluntarily under compensation packages. By the beginning of March, however, only 63 of the 1,700 settler families had signed such packages, according to the government. Goldschmidt says the withdrawal plans are moving ahead so quickly he hasn't had a chance to plan relocating.

And even if he had the chance, he doubts the amaryllis plants would do as well elsewhere. The sand in Gaza, he says, is ideal for cultivating the bulbs.

"When the bulbs are plucked from the ground they just come right out of the sand with their roots intact," he explains. This makes them easier to clean, helping to meet stringent US inspection standards, he says.

Along with the Israeli army, the 8,000 settlers now control about a third of Gaza. The other two-thirds, home to 1.3 million Palestinians, has a destitute economy, with mostly traditional open-field agriculture.

A Palestinian taking over Goldschmidt's farm, however, would be getting optimal facilities. Amaryllis bulbs take three years to grow, but that period can be cut to two with a system of underground heating pipes, which Goldschmidt has in some of his greenhouses. He also has an incubator; a computerized fertilization system, based on solar energy; a washing machine, and packing facilities.

Goldschmidt says he stands to lose more than $1 million for bulbs under cultivation that would have been ready in 2006 and 2007. If the farm keeps running, a Palestinian owner could see those bulbs through to market.

Although he says he has good relations with his workers, Goldschmidt is uneasy with the idea that his greenhouses could go to Palestinians, recalling settler acquaintances who were killed in an attack. But, he says: "If we can be compensated for how much this is really worth, I don't mind the Palestinians getting it."

Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres and the US Agency for International Development are now working on that idea. Mr. Peres, his aides say, is trying to raise money from international organizations to give the settler greenhouse farmers additional compensation. USAID is offering to fund repair or replacement of at least half the settler greenhouses.

The Palestinian Authority says it is readying to take over the greenhouses, but adds that Palestinians still face the problem that Israel controls all entrances and exits from the Strip.

"I think the Israeli talk of transferring the greenhouses to the Palestinians is either a publicity stunt or a way of maintaining Palestinian dependency on Israel and leaving us at Israel's mercy," says PA Labor Minister Ghassan Khatib. "Today they can allow us to export, while tomorrow they can delay the exports. It gives them leverage over us."

Outside one of his hothouses, Goldschmidt says he still holds out hope the evacuation will be canceled: "I believe it will be stopped. I believe in God and I don't believe it's His wish. And if it is His wish, there is a reason."

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