Gaza berry farms pinched

Israel closed a key trading point, costing Palestinians $500,000 a day, says the UN.

The strawberry fields of Gaza are at their peak this time of year, yielding fruit so shiny and red they seem like plastic replicas of themselves: too pretty and sweet to be true.

But for farmers like Mohammed Sarsak, growing berries on the land he leases here has become an increasingly dangerous and a markedly less lucrative proposition than in seasons past.

On the northern end of the Gaza Strip, this land is shaping up as the new battleground between Palestinian militants and the Israeli army. And, as a byproduct of the deep freeze in Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives after the electoral rise of Hamas - as well as an explosion at a border crossing last month - Israel has closed the vital Karni crossing, the access point for Gaza's produce and other exports.

Once plucked and packaged, the berries from Mr. Sarsak's fields would usually sell in Israel for $6 to $11 a box at the height of the season, and for more than that in Europe. But because Karni is closed, most of the berries will be dumped on the local Palestinian market, where the same box goes for $3 to $4.25. Sarsak estimates that he's lost about 100,000 shekels this season, or about $21,000.

The ripple effect of the closure is being felt far beyond Gaza's red strawberry fields. The United Nations says that the closure costs Palestinians $500,000 every day. And the Palestinian economy lost about $68 millionin January and February in the form of agricultural products that were not exported, according to Dr. Bassil Jabir, the CEO of the Palestinian Economic Development Company (PED), a private company with government funding.

"The entire northern Gaza area, including Beit Lahiya, is based on agriculture and in particular, strawberry growing, and a huge amount of it has been destroyed because of the closure," says Dr. Jabir. During the recent closures, he says, PED has been losing an average of 120 tons of produce each day, valued at $130,000.

At a meeting of the Israeli Fruitgrowers' Association on Tuesday, Israel's agriculture minister promised to push to reopen Karni; its closure is also causing losses for Israeli business, according to Israeli media reports. Meanwhile, there could soon be shortages here of food stocks that get imported if Israel does not reopen Gaza's main crossing point for goods, UN officials say.

Israeli military sources said that although Karni remains closed, Israel has offered the Palestinian Authority (PA) the option of transferring goods out of Gaza through another gateway, the Kerem Shalom crossing, but the Palestinians have declined the offer because they say that crossing is too small and because of restrictions on Palestinian officials being present at the crossing.

Moreover, the army blames Gaza's agricultural problems on the people who see fertile fields as a launch pad.

The volley of arms and the increased economic uncertainty are hardly what many here hoped for when Israel pulled settlers and troops out of Gaza last August. On Monday, two Israeli Air Force missiles hit an ice-cream van in Gaza City, killing two Islamic Jihad operatives and three Palestinian bystanders, two of them children.

Caught in the crossfire are the average people on either side of the border. In Israeli communities near here such at Netiv Haasara, residents are regularly jolted by the crash of rockets. The growers and their farmhands here say that they sometimes feel frightened coming to work.

"Some of them have said, why should I come and work there to get killed? Some of the workers used to do that next field over," says Sarsak, pointing to a nearby tract close to the line with Israel, "but many of them won't go there because they're afraid of being bombarded again."

But who is attacking whom is always a matter of opinion around here: Israel says it is only returning fire when its communities are being fired on, while Palestinians here say they're under attack without cause.

"The Israelis are the ones who should stop," he says. "If the Palestinians are firing rockets, then they should stop, too, because we are the ones paying the price."

"Since October 2000, Palestinians have launched thousands of projectile rockets at Israel with the specific intent of wounding and murdering Israeli civilians and causing damage to civilian infrastructure," the IDF said in a statement. "The launching of these rockets, which are directed specifically against innocent Israeli civilians, are considered a terror attack just like any other."

"The IDF has taken measures against these terror attacks, including the use of artillery fire at open areas used by Palestinian terrorists to launch rockets at Israel. The goal of this activity is to prevent the Kassam rocket-launching terror cells from entering these areas, and in this, to minimize the threat of the projectile rocket fire into Israel."

After Israel withdrew from Gaza last summer, it worked out an agreement on border crossings with the PA, brokered with the help of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. But after January's election of Hamas, most forms of cooperation have declined. According to a plan floated in several of Israel's newspapers this week, Israel's defense establishment favors a more complete separation from Gaza, making all border crossings fully international and giving Palestinians authority to operate their own seaport and airport, and to export goods accordingly.

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