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Palestinian farmers worked at a greenhouse in Gaza.
Palestinian farmers worked at a greenhouse in Gaza. (Mahmud Hams/ AFP/ Getty Images)

Greenhouse project endangered in Gaza

Security, trade troubles persist

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, a Page One story Monday about greenhouses in former Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip stated that Israeli settlers sabotaged greenhouses before withdrawing from Gaza in August. The article should have said some settlers dismantled their own greenhouses before leaving, and that Palestinians looted some greenhouses after the Israelis withdrew. A Palestinian official, Mahmoud Abu Samra, asserted to the reporter that Israelis had sabotaged some greenhouses, but he did not provide evidence to substantiate the allegation.)

DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip -- The refurbished greenhouses shine amid the rubble of Kfar Darom, a former Jewish settlement, embodying the hope that Israel's withdrawal from Gaza will drive an economic revival of this desperately poor and crowded urban strip.

Hundreds of Palestinian workers have been hired to fix up the 3,200 greenhouses in Gaza that donors bought from departing settlers and gave to the Palestinian Authority.

So far, the effort has yielded mixed results: Palestinian firms have risen to the occasion, repairing greenhouses sabotaged by departing settlers and by Palestinian looters. Some already have been planted with crops of mint, tomatoes, and lettuce and are expected to yield harvests in November.

But problems with security, obstacles to the free passage of goods through Israel, and the limited water supply -- along with pervasive corruption in the Palestinian Authority -- threaten the success of the greenhouse project and the entire Gaza economy.

The greenhouses offered a rare example of cooperation among Israelis and Palestinians during the pullout in August. James Wolfensohn, the former World Bank president who is serving as a Middle East envoy, hammered out the deal to buy the greenhouses. He even gave half a million dollars of his own money to the donor group that spent $14 million for them.

But Israel still controls Gaza's borders, and it has yet to approve an agreement that would open up a reliable channel to ship goods out of the strip, despite continuing negotiations mediated by Wolfensohn's team. Two weeks ago, Wolfensohn criticized Israel in a letter to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, saying it was ''almost acting as though there has been no withdrawal" with its policy of continuing to seal off Gaza and delaying talks. Wolfensohn is a special envoy for the quartet of Middle East mediators -- the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and Russia.

Without a guaranteed path to send Gaza's high-end vegetables and flowers onto the world market, Palestinian officials and international specialists said, the greenhouse project will wither on the vine. They warn that the enterprise, projected to generate $30 million to $100 million in annual revenues for the Palestinian Authority, will dwindle as perishable cargo rots inside Gaza's sealed borders.

The key to Gaza's economic success is the flow of goods across the border, said William Taylor, the top US adviser to Wolfensohn. Currently there is only one shipping point, at Karni Crossing between Israel and Gaza. On average, 35 trucks a day pass through the crossing, but the Israelis often close the border without notice because of security concerns or technical difficulties.

Karni was closed for 14 days from late September to early October, and the security procedures -- spreading out perishable cargoes of vegetables or seafood on sun-exposed tarmac for inspection -- mean that routinely 10 percent or more of a shipment is spoiled before it even leaves Gaza.

The greenhouse project, Taylor said, could push Israelis to change their practices at the crossing.

If the produce from the greenhouses can reach markets outside of Gaza, Taylor said, the profits would attract investment in other sectors of the Gaza economy such as furniture manufacturing and clothing factories.

A month after the last Israeli soldiers left Gaza, Palestinians have begun planting some of the greenhouses at the former settlements of Kfar Darom and Netzarim, once flashpoints in the conflict. The settlers' houses now stand in piles of rubble, demolished by Israeli soldiers, as part of the disengagement deal. The sites are guarded by a few dozen Palestinian soldiers who try to fend off looters who destroyed about 10 percent of the greenhouse infrastructure after the Israelis left.

On a recent day, soldiers stood around the mango groves that stretch from the ruins of Netzarim to the sea -- hundreds of lush tree branches bent with the weight of the fruit.

''Every night, people try to break in and steal mangoes and rob the greenhouses," said Mohammed Hijazi, a Palestinian Authority soldier patrolling the farmland with an AK-47 automatic rifle.

The authority has given management of the 3,200 greenhouses to a private Palestinian company, which is supposed to put them in working order. Within a few growing seasons, the authority plans to privatize the greenhouses, turning them over to farmers like Suleiman Atta Abu Garer, 38, who lives in a bullet-riddled house on the edge of the former settlement of Kfar Darom.

For Abu Garer, whose house frequently got caught in the crossfire between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli settlers, the new greenhouses represent an opportunity. But he sees a potential threat: If the company running the 4,000 greenhouses raises the same crops as Abu Garer -- eggplants, tomatoes, potatoes, and lettuce -- he's afraid he will lose profits to the new competition.

He also believes the endemic corruption in the Palestinian Authority could cripple the greenhouse project. ''What's to stop the authority and the companies it hires from splitting all the international aid money?" Abu Garer said.

Before the latest Palestinian uprising began in 2000, Abu Garer made lots of money selling his greenhouse-grown grapes in Israel. Now, with the borders only sporadically open, he has switched to growing the much lower-profit vegetables -- such as potatoes -- that he sells inside Gaza.

''With the border closed, I make no profit," he said, seated in the shade on the west side of his house, the back legs of his white plastic chair sinking into the manure freshly laid to fertilize a young date palm. ''Israel is a big market. I will be a lord, a king, if I can get my produce into Israel."

Inside the former settlement of Kfar Darom, dozens of workers are replacing the netting and plastic coverings on the greenhouse frames. This settlement's greenhouses provided most of Israel's bug-free kosher lettuce, of which there has been an acute shortage since disengagement.

Grocery store shelves once bristling with salad greens now stand empty. Florists complain of a lack of the high-quality roses they used to get from the Gush Katif settlement bloc in the Gaza Strip.

In Kfar Darom, only a few plots have been planted, and some are bristling with mint plants, the scent carried on the sea breeze.

''Here, it's good heavy soil," said agricultural engineer Salem al-Hewaty, who is supervising the greenhouse rehabilitation at the former settlements of Kfar Darom and Netzarim.

Mahmoud Abu Samra, a top Palestinian Authority agriculture official in the Gaza Strip, is a farmer who owns several greenhouses. He said the authority's deal with the single subcontractor lends itself to corruption. The only way to translate the greenhouse purchase into real quality-of-life improvement, he said, would be to sell or rent them to individual farmers, which the Palestinian Authority plans to do within a few growing seasons, although it has not established a timeline for privatization.

Gaza had 12,000 greenhouses in the Palestinian areas, Abu Samra said, with agriculture accounting for 6 percent to 13 percent of the economy, by ministry estimates. He said the greenhouse project, if successful, could inject an additional $30 million of revenue into the local economy, a lower estimate than the $50 million to $100 million touted by some international consultants.

In the final reckoning, those involved said, the success of the greenhouse project -- like the viability of Gaza's entire economy -- will depend on the broader context: security and the ability to trade.

The first harvest in November will provide a major test for the contentious border crossing, Taylor said. ''We are going to be watching these very carefully, and we are going to be sure that the Israelis are going to watch these very carefully," Taylor said.

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