Gaza’s Greenhouses Get the Times All Steamy

Coverage of post- disengagement farming in Gaza comes up short on the details.
November 28, 2005

Back in September, when Ariel Sharon disengaged Israel from the Gaza Strip, a lot of people were optimistic that the move would help revitalize the Palestinian economy. Once the Israelis were gone, it was thought, the international community (particularly Europe) would pour money into the impoverished region, hoping to make it a positive example of what the Palestinians could do if they had their own state.

Today’s New York Times, in an article optimistically titled, “Gaza Gets Ready for a Harvest of Produce and Promise,” tells us that this “economic revival” is on track. The evidence is the estimated $20 million in strawberries, cherry tomatoes, sweet peppers, herbs and spices grown in the greenhouses of former Jewish settlers. Taken over following the disengagement, these high-tech greenhouses will soon generate their first crops under Palestinian control.

That sounds good. But the article, which describes the greenhouses as “hives of activity, filled with the sounds of power saws and hammers at work,” betrays itself in the details — or lack thereof.

The fact is that the greenhouses were just barely saved from destruction in September when American Jewish donors, in a last minute deal, put up $14 million to buy them from the settlers and transfer them to the Palestinian Authority. Former World Bank president James Wolfensohn, who acted as the broker, threw in half a million dollars of his own money to make the deal happen. In spite of this effort, the greenhouses were damaged both by departing settlers, who vandalized them as a way of sabotaging any future Palestinian expropriation, and by the Palestinians themselves who looted and destroyed many of the greenhouses when the Israelis left. Subsequently, as the article makes clear, only 600 of the 1000 acres of greenhouses are currently operable.

Moreover, whatever the Palestinians do manage to grow is likely to spoil if it can’t pass quickly enough through the Karni border crossing, Gaza’s outlet to Israel. Palestinians have no assurance that Israel will expedite security checks allowing them to promptly deliver products, such as strawberries, that go bad without constant refrigeration.

The Times adds, without comment, another interesting piece of information. While Israeli farmers employed 3,000 workers on 1,000 acres of land, the Palestinians, working on only half that amount of land, currently employ 4,000 workers and an additional 2,000 security guards. That doesn’t much sound like an efficient (let alone safe) operation that is going to deliver high margins well into the future. And the Times, which projects that the greenhouses will deliver $20 million in revenues, doesn’t tell us whether the cost of operating them is likely to be even higher.

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Regardless of whether farmers manage to turn a profit, the Palestinian economy is in desperate need of help. This is the larger story that the Times ignores in its thoroughly unconvincing attempt to paint a rosy picture. Left unmentioned is the fact that the Europeans have yet to deliver on their promises of loans and aid. And though an Israeli official is quoted as saying that Israel has a stake in Gaza’s economic success, the article fails to note that Israel has done almost nothing to help ensure that success.

Gaza’s economic future hinges far less on strawberries and peppers than on the completion of a planned airport and a new seaport. But both of those projects, too, have been stalled by Israel’s unwillingness to negotiate. As a result, many other Palestinian ambitions — to expand the tourism industry; to build casinos and industrial parks — remain well beyond the horizon.

Clearly, the Palestinians have not yet reaped their harvest. If and when greenhouses help them do so, we will encourage journalists to write that story.

Before that time, let’s hold off on the unsubstantiated optimism.

Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR and a writer and editor for the New York Times Book Review.