- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 1, 2005

NETZER HAZANI, Gaza Strip — Hoping to save the jobs of thousands of Palestinian farm workers, interna- tional donors paid Jewish settlers $14 million to buy their Gaza Strip green- houses before the pullout in August. But Palestinian looters damaged many of the buildings, and access to international markets remains uncertain.

Rows of irrigation hoses run across the bare sand floor of a greenhouse, but as Hatem Awad prepares to plant the first crop of tomatoes since Israel handed these plantations over to the Palestinians, he is troubled by rips in the sheeting that covers the metal frame of the greenhouse.

“If the wind blows a little bit here, [the small tomato plants] will all fly away,” said Mr. Awad, who had worked in the greenhouses for the Jewish settlers. “Winter is coming, and viruses will kill the plants.”

The hope of foreign donors was that the Israelis would leave behind 800 acres of greenhouses, which grew flowers and produce, which would be ready for September planting. But the looters damaged many of the greenhouses, stripping them bare of the computers the settlers used to monitor crops. Irrigation pumps were stolen, electricity networks paralyzed, and protective sheeting for the hothouses was torn.

Palestinian officials said greenhouses covering a quarter of the land were damaged after the turnover. The transferred farms have the potential to nearly double the output of the Palestinian agriculture industry, the largest private-sector income engine in Gaza’s $1 billion economy.

Now, as the Palestinians try to restart a lucrative agribusiness that exported produce to the United States and Europe, the greenhouses face an uncertain future. Lax security and unreliable access to foreign markets threaten to turn profit-making ventures that grossed $75 million per year into a money pit.

A successful revival of the greenhouses could boost the administration of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said Osama al-Farra, the mayor of Khan Younis. If the project falters, it could tilt the balance in favor of militant groups such as Hamas, which are vying for control of the new Palestinian territory in Gaza.

Although Palestinians spent precious weeks repairing and cleaning up the damage, orders for strawberry seedlings were held up for days at a border checkpoint while Israel shut down the crossing in a security alert.

The new managers of the agriculture estate were praised for starting to plant in October and hiring 3,000 workers, but the first season under the Palestinians could see a two-thirds drop in sales, said Boaz Karni, a treasurer at the Economic Cooperation Foundation, an Israeli nongovernmental organization that helped facilitate the transaction.

“It is certainly true that this is going to be a struggle to make work,” said Bill Taylor, a U.S. member of the international team led by James D. Wolfensohn, a former World Bank president charged with assisting Gaza’s economic recovery.

“Concerns about this being a profit-making enterprise are legitimate,” Mr. Taylor added, citing uncertainty over free passage of products intended for export and continuing security problems.

Before Israel withdrew them from Gaza, Israeli settlers cultivated 1,125 acres there. About three-quarters of the hothouses were covered in the transfer, which assumed that Palestinian workers could use their agricultural know-how to keep the businesses alive.

The greenhouses once employed 3,600 workers, mostly Palestinians. The mediators who solicited foreign donors to compensate the settlers for the hothouses knew that under Palestinian ownership, the businesses had the potential to create an additional 3,000 nonagricultural jobs to support the venture.

“This was a good economic deal in terms of benefit versus the price,” Mr. Taylor said.

For the Palestinian laborers who helped clear away the debris around the hothouses before planting, the preparations were accompanied by anxiety and hope. With the potential to earn 50 shekels ($11) to 200 shekels a day, the well-being of the workers is linked to the survival of the greenhouses.

Yet many wondered whether their new bosses would be able to manage the businesses as successfully as had the settlers. Mr. Awad said he was tempted to join his old employer on a new farm in Israel.

A few hothouses away, workers complained that the new planting methods were rudimentary compared with those of the Israelis.

“The new system isn’t sophisticated. Maybe they don’t have the experience,” said Shahdeh Ajwah. “I dream that one day it will be full of green plants like it used to be.” For the time being, the agricultural estates are owned by the Palestinian government and managed by a private contractor. The goal, however, is to privatize them. In an economy that has relied on income brought home by Palestinians working in Israel as cheap labor, the greenhouses promise a new source of domestic jobs.

Whether the Palestinian Authority will keep the greenhouses operating over the next few years is not clear, said Mohammed el-Samhouri, who sat on a ministerial committee that is assessing what to do with assets left behind by the Israelis. Other development projects could become more attractive.

“We’re not sure if greenhouses are the best use of our land in that part of Gaza. Agriculture is one option, but not necessarily the only option that we have for the future use of the land,” Mr. el-Samhouri said. “For political reasons, we just wanted to make a statement that we were able to use those greenhouses.”

In Netzer Hazani, Subhi Firwana, an 18-year veteran of the hothouses, worries that the cleanup work will be halted and that he will return to the ranks of Gaza’s jobless.

If the Palestinian Authority manages the greenhouses successfully, he will be able to earn a living without looking for work in Israel. But if the government can’t keep out looters, there is little hope for him — not to mention Palestinian aspirations for statehood.

“We hope they will learn from their mistakes,” said Mr. Firwana, speaking of the Palestinian government. “If they start to destroy instead of building, there won’t be a state.”

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