ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 144

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Inside Story'Hamas is firing every 5 minutes to make sure yields are lost'

For Israeli farmers near Gaza, damage may be temporary but long-term crisis looms

The border area’s agricultural sector could undergo a rapid rehabilitation, but much depends on whether the war scares away foreign workers, experts say

Canaan Lidor

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

A fire rages near an agricultural field in Israel near the border with Gaza, on September 12, 2021. (Flash90)
A fire rages near an agricultural field in Israel near the border with Gaza, on September 12, 2021. (Flash90)

In the freshly plowed fields of Kibbutz Alumim near Gaza, tens of thousands of young chickens desperately search for food as hundreds of buzzards feast on the carcasses of less fortunate birds.

The kibbutz’s poultry farm has a house-sized hole in its side, the result of a recent rocket hit. A blackened industrial ventilator, its motor burnt, rotates in an autumn breeze that blows in from the bombed-out Gaza City just a few miles away, carrying black smoke and the scent of charred plastic. Chickens pour out as three jackals, abandoning their nocturnal schedule, give chase.

The scene, witnessed by a Times of Israel reporter Monday, is part of the grim reality in the once-prosperous agricultural communities around Gaza. Their meticulously farmed fields and cutting-edge facilities have been transformed into something resembling a post-apocalyptic movie set in the war between Hamas in Gaza and Israel.

The wide-scale devastation in the fields of the region known in Hebrew as Otef Azza – “the Gaza envelope” – has been largely eclipsed by the loss of life in the brutal October 7 incursion of 2,500 terrorists who murdered some 1,400 people, mostly civilians, abducted at least 203, and blew up and torched swaths of kibbutzim, villages and towns.

The damage caused to one of Israel’s main agricultural areas risks undoing the life’s work and wrecking the livelihood of hundreds of people, as well as causing a food shortage at a time when the country is ramping up for a war whose duration and intensity remain unknown.

About 75 percent of all Israel’s domestically grown vegetables come from the Gaza border area, as does 20% of the fruit and 6% of the milk, according to Uri Dorman, the Israel Farmers Association’s general secretary. The Gaza envelope is particularly good for growing potatoes. In recent years, it has become a major exporter of multiple types of that crop to the Netherlands and Belgium.

Smoke billows up from the Gaza Strip behind the avocado orchards of Nahal Oz, Israel on October 15, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Without irrigation or pest control, the potato fields of the Gaza envelope are withering away a little more with every passing day.

“The damages look dramatic, but in agriculture rehabilitation is speedy,” Dorman, who has been growing apples and pears on the Golan Heights since 1981, told The Times of Israel.

The government regularly mitigates farmers’ losses due to hostilities. But this war, in which a large number of Thai agricultural workers have been killed and abducted, risks “stigmatizing Israel in the eyes of foreign workers as a place that’s too dangerous. And that can cause a long-term crisis that could endanger not only this fall’s harvest, but Israeli agriculture as a whole,” Dorman said.

The agricultural sector of the Gaza border region relies on some 5,000 foreign workers, most of them from Thailand, he said. “Many of the workers say they want to go back to Thailand. The damages from the war are temporary; but if they go back and new workers stay away, there will be a labor shortage that could devastate the sector.”

The greenhouse tomatoes of Nahal Oz, a kibbutz of about 400 members, many of whom are either dead or missing, are only now beginning to ripen. If they are not picked in the coming week, hundreds of thousands of shekels and hundreds of hours of work will go to waste. The banana plantations have two more weeks before their yields, which are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, become unsalvageable. Little remains of the organic lettuce field of Kibbutz Alumim after gazelles have grazed the plants to the roots.

A tank takes up a position near a tractor in an agricultural field on the Israeli side of the border area between Israel and the Gaza Strip, on September 21, 2022. (Flash90)

Rockets also hit the smart irrigation setups of the kibbutzim, which generations of farmers have optimized to provide just the right amount of recycled water required to sustain thirsty, shallow-rooted vegetables like cucumbers and tomatoes on the edge of the desert. The water from ruptured storage and mixing tanks flows freely onto the soil, forming pools that attract migrating birds from miles away.

Some of the fields are off-limits for farmers because of anti-tank fire by Palestinian terrorists hiding in the bombed-out buildings of Gaza, so close that their features are visible to the naked eye from Alumim. The terrorists constantly fire machine guns that echo across the fields.

“That’s 100% designed to make sure the Thai workers stay away,” said one company commander who was camped out in an extension of one of the villages of the Gaza border region. His troops were there to block and intervene in case of an attempted infiltration, the reserves captain said on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to media.

Whereas working in exposed fields would be dangerous for the workers, he said, “Picking bananas or working in the greenhouses would be relatively safe because they’d be practically invisible to snipers. Hamas know this so they are just firing off at nothing every five minutes to make sure the yields are lost.”

The metal balls of an improvised explosive device are seen scattered on a road near the fields of Alumim, on October 15, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Lying low for fear of anti-tank missiles, the forward-base company dug in for the night, surveying the fields with thermal and night vision. Their deployment demonstrates lessons learned in the October 7 raid by the Hamas terrorists, who met little resistance as they crossed into Israel and rampaged murderously through the communities of southern Israel.

A short distance to the east of the forward position, a much larger force was deployed and mobilized in full battle gear behind them, commanding an elevated position and ready to intervene immediately in case hostiles approached the forward force.

The signs of war were everywhere on the roads that snaked between the fields of Alumim and Nahal Oz, whose asphalt was scarred from tank tracks and whose shoulders were largely collapsed because of the vehicles’ weight. On one road, the sun glistened off metal ball bearings from an exploded roadside bomb that terrorists planted to target security forces.

In this frightening reality, “Thai workers in Israel don’t want to return to the Gaza envelope. They want to leave Israel,” said Doron Eliyahu, a coordinator at the Field Growers’ Union. To mitigate the problem, Eliyahu has been recruiting hundreds of volunteers from activist groups.

An IDF Merkava battle tank moves along the border with the Gaza Strip by the southern city of Sderot on October 18, 2023. (Jack Guez / AFP)

HaShomer haChadash, a group established in 2007 to combat agricultural theft, has provided 900 volunteers to help pick crops even in the closest towns and villages to Gaza, including Nahal Oz and Alumin. While that sounds like a large number, “in practice it’s difficult,” Eliyahu said. “The volunteers can’t come on all days, and you need a large group to be effective.”

Eliyahu was putting together a database of thousands of volunteers in order to coordinate harvest actions in the coming days. “It’s to bridge the gap, until the foreign workers return,” he explained.

But even as the effort continues, continuity is being looked out for in some of the Gaza envelope’s agricultural communities. “As we work on harvesting this year’s crops, next year’s potatoes are already being sown,” Eliyahu said.

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