International aid groups are hoping that agriculture may be the key to strengthening Gaza’s shattered economy, and that the labor-intensiveness of farming will decrease widespread unemployment.
This month, the US Consulate in Jerusalem announced a new $50 million USAID initiative called Envision Gaza, a five-year project focusing on improving the employment rate, with an emphasis on areas like technology, textiles, and agriculture.
The agricultural sector in Gaza is a relatively small part — between seven and eight percent — of the economy, according to an economic adviser at the United States Consul General in Jerusalem. However, agricultural products make up 85% of the exports from Gaza, she said. At least 30,000 Gazans formally work in agriculture, in addition to many informal workers, including day laborers.
Although it is a small portion of the economy, because it requires a large number of workers, it can have a big impact. According to the World Bank, nearly 80% of Gaza’s population receives some kind of social assistance, and nearly 40% falls below the poverty line.
The same World Bank report notes that Gaza unemployment rate stood at 43% at the end of 2014, one of the highest in the world. In comparison, Forbes reported that South Africa has the highest country-wide unemployment rates with 25.5% followed by Greece at 24.5%.
A number of international aid organizations are working to improve Gazan agriculture. The Netherlands has a program called High Value Crops Export Program, which focuses on produce that commands high market prices, such as strawberries and flowers, for export in Europe.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization is promoting personal rooftop gardens in Gaza City, including aquaponics and hydroponics training — enabling families to grow all of their own vegetables using a special blend of water and fertilizers that do not need soil. Aquaponics also allows families to raise their own fish for consumption, since the fish droppings provide fertilizer for the plants in a closed water system.
The major issue with making Gazan agriculture more profitable is getting it out of the Strip and into Israeli, West Bank, and international markets. Because of Israeli security concerns, Gazan produce must be thoroughly searched and vetted before entering the country. According to the economic adviser, produce leaving the Keren Shalom Crossing must go through three separate security areas, and each time must be unloaded and reloaded into three separate trucks.
This process can take two to four hours, during which the vegetables are in the sun as there are no proper facilities for keeping items cold. It also requires paying workers for each unloading and reloading, which adds significant costs. The lack of cold facilities is why Gaza does not export dairy products, despite having a thriving dairy market, according to the US consul general.
Strawberry farmer Ahmed Shafai, 79, says it can cost NIS 4,000 ($1,050) per truck in fees to get it through the Keren Shalom crossing. Produce destined for the West Bank must go through an additional, similar security check on its way into the West Bank.
“It’s actually cheaper to export strawberries to Europe than to Ramallah,” he said. Shafai estimated his transportation costs due to the security requirements are about NIS 2.9 per kilo, a significant amount when his profits on strawberries are between NIS 11 and NIS 13 per kilo.
“There is a need to balance the legitimate security needs of the Government of Israel with the necessity of building Gaza’s economy,” said US Consul General in Jerusalem Donald Blome, at an event on May 9 celebrating produce grown in Gaza.
In 2014, Gaza produce was allowed into the Israeli market for the first time since 2007. The move was negotiated as part of the end to the war between Israel and Hamas that summer. It may have also been partially influenced by the fact that Israel observed a “shmita” year in 2014-2015, a religious tradition of an agricultural sabbatical when Israeli farmers allow their land to lie fallow for the year, so people look for produce grown outside of Israel.
Blome, however, cautioned that many more steps still remain to help Gazan farmers become more profitable.
“The agriculture sector is a powerful example of how cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and the government of Israel can benefit Palestinians in Gaza and provide real economic possibilities in the midst of hardship,” he said.
To combat some of the loss that stems from the security realities, USAID, in cooperation with Catholic Relief services, is helping to train Gazan farmers in new technology so they can get higher yields from the same amount of land. This includes greenhouses, improved irrigation, and raised beds so that produce like strawberries are hanging in the air instead of resting on the ground.
“We want to work with firms so they can become more competitive in the local and export market,” said Imad Kamhawi, the head of the agricultural sector for the COMPETE project. USAID has worked with 300 different farmers or farming companies in Gaza since the project started last year. More than 30 Palestinian firms that signed contracts with international buyers brought $34 million to the local economy.
“The main challenge is water: The cost of extracting water from wells is high, and the issue is there is only eight hours a day of electricity, but you never know when those eight hours are going to come,” said Kamhawi.
Another issue, Kamhawi said, is that special permission is required to import commercial fertilizers to Gaza, because they are considered “dual use”: Because they can also be used in preparation of explosives, it is difficult for farmers to obtain them for legal use.
For the May 9 event, the US consul general obtained special permission to bring in Gaza produce for a celebratory evening with Palestinian mezze and specials like a refreshing juice made from roquette leaves. The evening featured shrimp and sardines caught off the coast of Gaza as well as traditional desserts and bite-sized sandwiches made with local labaneh cheese dip and cucumbers.
They also arranged permits for a number of Gazan farmers and Jamal Sobeh, the chef at the well-regarded Level Up restaurant in Gaza City, to attend the event.
“All of the produce and seafood you see before you, that you are eating right now, the fruit in the specialty juices – all of it was produced in Gaza,” said Blome. “I don’t think anyone in Jerusalem has been able to say that for the last 10 years.”