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Gaza farmers set to export strawberries to Europe

Nov. 30, 2016 5:29 P.M. (Updated: Nov. 30, 2016 5:54 P.M.)
GAZA CITY (Ma'an) -- Following a decision by Israeli authorities to allow Gaza farmers to export their strawberries to European countries, Palestinian farmers across the besieged enclave have begun to harvest their strawberries for export, Gaza’s Ministry of Agriculture told Ma’an on Wednesday.

The ministry's director of marketing, Tahsin al-Saqqa, said that the strawberries would necessitate a certificate from the ministry before they could be transported to Europe.

The certificate is given after the ministry’s specialists confirm that the strawberries are free of any harmful chemical residue from pesticide use.

The strawberries are expected to first be exported on Thursday.

According to al-Saqqa, Gazan farmers are expected to produce some 1,500 tons of strawberries this season, while there are currently 600 dunams (150 acres) of land dedicated to strawberries in the small Palestinian enclave.

Al-Saqqa highlighted that strawberry farmers used to produce an average of 7,000 tons of strawberries a year on 3,000 dunams of land (750 acres) in previous years, adding that planting 1,000 square meters of strawberries costs some $3,000.

"If we can access the European market early in the season, farmers will reap benefits," he added, noting that strawberries were also exported from Egypt and Morocco to the European markets.

Earlier this month, an Israeli official said that the Israeli civil administration had initiated a project to facilitate the planting of strawberries by Palestinian farmers in collaboration with Agriculture Affairs Coordinator Samir Madi, Head of the Liaisons and Coordination Department Raim Falah, and USAID.

The project had produced some 425 tons of strawberries, and generated an income of some 5 million shekels ($1,302,999) for Palestinian farmers participating in the project, according to the official.

The Gaza Strip has suffered under an Israeli military blockade since 2007, when Hamas was elected to rule the territory. Residents of Gaza suffer from high unemployment and poverty rates, as well as the consequences of three devastating wars with Israel since 2008, most recently in the summer of 2014.

Strawberry production, and much of agricultural production, has been on the decline since the Israeli-imposed military siege on the Gaza Strip and the consecutive ban on Gaza exports, leading many strawberry farmers to abandon the practice due to the high cost of production.

Strawberry farmers had been dependent on smuggling planting materials through tunnels between the besieged territory and Egypt. However, following the destruction of tunnels by Israeli and Egyptianforces in 2013, farmers were forced to purchase Israeli-imported seedlings, insecticides, and fertilizers, which dramatically raised the price of production.

In 2014 Israeli authorities began easing export restriction from Gaza into the occupied West Bank and Israel following the 2014 Israeli offensive, which created a five-fold increase in exports in 2015 from the previous year, according to the UN.

However, despite the easing of restrictions, the production and export levels in Gaza has remained significantly lower than before the Israeli-imposed blockade, which has continued to suffocate the economy in the small Palestinian territory.

The UN has said that the besieged Palestinian territory could become "uninhabitable" by 2020, as its 1.8 million residents remain in dire poverty due to the Israeli blockade, while continuing to experience slow-paced reconstruction efforts aimed at rebuilding homes for some 75,000 Palestinians who remain displaced since 2014.

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