If you’d given me a blind taste test, I would have guessed that the small succulent strawberries could have fetched $10 a carton at a high-end organic market in Jerusalem.
But that would be illegal since the strawberries were grown in the Gaza Strip. And Gaza's farmers aren’t allowed to export their strawberries – or tomatoes, bell peppers, chives, carnations, or any other produce – to Israel, a policy that has been in place since Hamas took over the coastal territory in 2007.
There are exceptions, however, which is how the United States Consulate here finagled a small sample of produce from Gaza last month, a one-time transfer approved by the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture. Two security guards inspected the shipment of a dozen boxes at the Erez checkpoint – but only out of curiosity about the hot chili peppers, which were not the usual variety found in Gaza.
Inside the consulate, local Palestinian and foreign journalists nibbled at petite strawberry shortcakes and platters of hors d’oeuvres. A table groaned with a harvest spread of shiny bell peppers, earthy sweet potatoes, bouquets of chives and, of course, strawberries.
Gazan growers seized the opportunity to lobby US Consul General Michael Ratney to help plead their case for improved market access in Israel, which used to be the main buyer of Gaza’s fresh produce exports.
“USAID is not helping Gaza,” said Ghassan Qassem, one of the growers.
“Mish saheeye,” Mr. Ratney replied, using a little Arabic to disagree.
“Most of the aid is going to humanitarian [projects], which is not helping the economy,” persisted Mr. Qassem, who manages the Beit Hanout agricultural cooperative in northern Gaza.
Ratney said he recognized the need to help Gaza’s private sector and expressed hope that Israelis would be won over by the “quality, safety, and freshness” of Gaza’s products. But he didn’t offer any quick fix to Israel’s ban on imports from Gaza.
Gazan producers got a minor reprieve this week: COGAT, the Israeli authority responsible for Gaza, announced a number of steps designed to ease reconstruction in the territory. They included the transfer of 45 tractors for farmers, an increase in the monthly quota for business permits for Gazans from 3,000 to 5,000, and a modest expansion of agricultural and industrial exports from Gaza to the West Bank.
Agricultural exports stalled
Before Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, more than 11,000 truckloads of goods were exported annually. Even after Israel pulled out, Palestinians were exporting upwards of 5,000 truckloads annually, with about 70 percent of the produce going to Israel and 25 percent to the West Bank, according to Bashar Skaik of Paltrade in Gaza City. Agriculture was one of the largest sectors, accounting for more than a third of total exports.
Then came the 2006 election and the violent takeover by Hamas the following year. Since 2010, an average of only 229 truckloads per year have been exported out of Gaza (Israel says its restrictions curb weapons trafficking; rights groups call them collective punishment.) None of those exports are allowed into the Israeli market, and until this fall the West Bank was also off limits. A trickle of fresh flowers and other goods are shipped to Europe as part of aid projects.
Given these obstacles, why does Qassem, who has grown strawberries and carnations in Gaza since the early 1990s, keep at it?
“Loyalty to my land and my country,” he says simply.