- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 1, 2006

GANEI TAL, Gaza Strip — The fate of the greenhouse farms taken over by Palestinians in former Jewish settlements is uncertain after the failure of the Palestinian Authority to pay security-guard salaries led to a rash of lootings.

The lucrative agribusinesses were purchased from Israeli settlers for $14 million by a group of donors organized by former World Bank President James Wolfensohn, and have created 6,000 jobs in impoverished Gaza.

But the lax security coupled with rampant lawlessness in southern Gaza has put expansion plans on hold and could endanger the entire enterprise, said the Palestinian official overseeing the project.

Meanwhile, the United Nations warned yesterday that Israel and the West could unleash a crisis in Palestinian territories by withholding hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and transfers.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs cautioned that an Israeli decision to cut off taxes and customs duties collected on behalf of the Palestinians could bring the Palestinian government to the brink of collapse by limiting its ability to provide basic services such as health, education, utilities, sanitation and policing.

Bassel Jabir, head of the government-owned Palestinian Economic Development Co., said he has hired about 500 guards while he waits to see whether the Palestinian finance ministry can fund salaries for 2,000 security personnel.

“Our hard work might evaporate,” he said. “I am on the waiting seat. It would be a catastrophe” if the funds were not approved.

Last month, thieves disassembled steel frames of about 50 acres’ worth of hothouses to sell as scrap metal in a rash of plundering, causing $2 million in damage as Palestinian farmers prepare for the height of the winter planting season.

Mr. Jabir said the monthlong closing of the Karni crossing in Israel has cost the greenhouse plantations $1 million. With 7,000 acres of greenhouses planted, the expected revenue of $19 million for the first half year has been thrown into doubt.

Sheik Ahmed Bahar, a newly elected legislator from Hamas, said the party would see to it that the looting is stopped once the Islamic militants take power in the coming weeks.

“When Hamas forms a government, the system will be respected by everyone,” Sheik Bahar said. “The people doing this are like criminals.”

The plainclothes guards at the entrance to the greenhouses at this former Jewish settlement take shelter around tobacco pipes in crudely constructed cinder-block huts. The guards, who claim to belong to a militia called “the people’s army,” said their colleagues have destroyed greenhouses at the neighboring settlements after their paychecks were three months overdue.

“Some members of the organization went inside the greenhouses and took whatever they could to sell it,” said Nurdin Fakmuri, a 21-year-old guard armed with an AK-47 assault rifle. “When the civilians saw that, they did the same thing.”

Mr. Fakmuri said he is loyal to Mohammed Dahlan, the former Gaza security chief. Mr. Jabir said the guards were not part of the regular Palestinian security services, and instead were hired by the Interior Ministry as private contractors.

The plundered scrap metal and the plastic irrigation equipment from the greenhouses recently have surfaced at outdoor retail stalls around Khan Younis.

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