Workers at the Abukhoussa farm in the northern Gaza Strip prepare strawberries for export on January 4. (Sanaa Alswerky)

There’s Some Optimism in Gaza over Easing of Restrictions

At least one analyst, though, questions Israeli intentions in enabling exports

Since the end of 2019, Israel has taken steps to permit farmers and even industrialists in the Gaza Strip to export products that have been banned for years.

On December 17, COGAT, the Israeli Defense Ministry’s coordinator for government activities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, announced that “[f]ive tons of Gazan strawberries left Ben-Gurion Airport for England this morning after they were shipped from Gaza,” adding that strawberries from the Palestinian enclave had already been exported to a number of Gulf states.

“The extensive export of Gazan strawberries over recent weeks – to Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] and to various countries around the world – is testimony to the high importance of the agricultural sector and its significant contribution to the Palestinian economy in the Gaza Strip,” the statement said.

In the northern Alatatra area of the Gaza Strip lies the Abukhoussa farm. With a beautiful and colorful view of strawberries arranged horizontally to hang out of white pipes, The Media Line interviewed owner Akram Abukhoussa.

“Strawberry farming [in the enclave] severely deteriorated between 2000 and 2016, reaching only 450 dunams [approximately 100 acres] compared to 2,500 before the year 2000,” he said. “Fortunately, in 2016, there were Dutch efforts to pressure Israel [and] we were allowed to export strawberries to the West Bank.”

He notes that this has increased the use of land for strawberry farming.

“Now that we’re in 2020,” he continued, “the number of strawberry-planted dunams is almost 1,750, and we are exporting our products to Russia, the United Arab Emirates, the West Bank and [even] Israel.”

Abukhoussa says that this amount of strawberry farming means work for some 6,000 people, thereby reducing unemployment and helping the Gaza Strip’s private sector.

People in the area are so encouraged by the relaxed export rules that they are starting to think in terms of new initiatives, with a mill owner telling The Media Line that he has requested permission to export flour.

And then there are Krembos.

Earlier this month, COGAT tweeted: “Right now, a shipment of Krembo… is being exported from #Gaza for the first time. This is an exciting step in the exportation of processed food from Gaza, which hasn’t happened since 2007.”

Wae’l Alwadiya, CEO of Gaza-based Sarayo Alwadiya food industries, told The Media Line he was optimistic about the approval to export eight tons of Krembo – a winter favorite that is part cookie and part soft marshmallow, all topped by glazed chocolate – to Gulf states for what he said was the first time since 2005.

With almost 150 workers in his factory, Alwadiya believes further such export permits would have a positive effect on the livelihood of his employees.

“Having 150 workers here means sustaining at least 150 families,” he said. “If more export facilitations occurred, we might double or even triple the workforce, which, of course, would alleviate the critical unemployment situation [in the Gaza Strip].”

Alwadiya insists that Gazans have a legitimate right to be able to export their goods anywhere they choose, without Israeli interference.

“We were given Israeli permission to export our product to any foreign country – but not our own,” he said. “We are not allowed to export to either Israel or the West Bank.”

Ali Alhayek, head of the Palestinian Business Association, said in a statement that 2020 “will witness economic improvement” if export rules continue to be eased.

“Successive facilitations could push the Palestinian economic wheel and move the stagnant economic situation,” Alhayek continued in the statement, referring to such spheres as food, clothing and fabrics, as well as the Gaza Strip’s offshore fishing zone.

However, many others are less optimistic, citing suspicions about Israel’s true motivations.

Mohammed Abujayyab, an independent Gaza-based economist, told The Media Line that Israeli easements “have something to do with bringing back Israeli soldiers in Gaza and ceasing military manufacturing” by Hamas and other groups. Israel insists the Israeli soldiers are dead and that groups in Gaza are merely holding their bodies.

Abujayyab said he expects no “real and essential” economic developments in the Gaza Strip this coming year, arguing that the “so-called” easing of restrictions will have “zero positive impact on the ground.”

About exporting Krembos, he said: “So far, the exported amount is not economically feasible and [COGAT] has been making a lot of hoopla though it’s only an $8 million deal.”

He noted a recent Israeli concession to the Gaza Strip that allowed the import of tires – which are frequently burned as part of anti-Israel protests.

“Israeli news outlets have reported the entry of tires but never said this was conditional on returning old tires for every new shipment,” he complained, calling it little more than propaganda.

“If Israel wants to help, then let raw materials come in. Stop the security complications at the borders. And stop imposing unreasonable quotas,” he continued.

“We can’t be assured of Israel’s good intentions,” he explained, “unless it opens doors for full and unconditional exports impacting a reasonable number of factories” in the Gaza Strip.

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