Carrot-and-stick policy affects Gaza strawberry exports

Israel’s move might be aimed at easing siege, inciting people against Hamas
Friday 19/02/2016
Gaza farmer Ayman Subeih collects strawberries for exports to the West Bank.

Gaza City - Israel has allowed the resump­tion of exports from the Gaza Strip for the first time since 2007, signalling a slight re­laxation of its blockade of the enclave but it has also led to spec­ulation that the Jewish state may be trying to incite Gaza’s popula­tion against its Hamas rulers.

The resumed exports of straw­berries, which began on January 27th, reflects a small portion of Gaza’s economy, which has en­dured four wars and been under a crippling Israeli siege since Hamas seized control of the area in June 2007.

Observers said the measure pointed to an Israeli carrot-and-stick policy towards Gaza to allow it to survive on the bare minimum Israel allows. Nevertheless, it sends a message to Gazans that Is­rael is willing to become lenient if they turn against Hamas.

Economist Saad al-Thabet said the Israeli move “is meant to in­cite the people of Gaza against Hamas”.

“It tells the people that the wars, the siege and the closures are meant against Hamas, not against them,” Thabet said. “It also proves that the siege has political, more than economic, implications.”

But, he pointed out, such moves could “backfire as the people may understand it as part of the humil­iation they endure under occupa­tion”.

Israeli wars on Gaza destroyed one-fifth of the region’s industrial infrastructure, killed or wounded thousands of people, displaced more than 100,000 and left 30% of households without access to potable water, according to the Hamas Trade Ministry.

Coupled with the siege that vir­tually shut Gaza’s land, air and sea passages, banned its trade and stranded its population in territory squeezed between Is­rael and Egypt, the wars caused gross domestic product (GDP) to contract. The Trade Ministry said GDP shrank 12% in 2013 and 15% in 2014.

Nearly 40% of Gaza’s popula­tion is considered to be in poverty. Unemployment swelled to 52% in 2015, the ministry said.

It also referred to a sharp con­traction of the private sector that had relied primarily on export markets. Egyptian authorities cracked down on Gaza’s exten­sive underground tunnel-based smuggling network in 2013, creat­ing severe shortages in fuel, con­struction material and consumer goods.

Tahseen al-Saqqa, head of the marketing department in Gaza’s Hamas-run Agricultural Ministry, said the first batch of exports — strawberries — went to the West Bank through Israel on January 27th.

Under the Israeli permission, “ten tonnes of strawberries will continue to trickle across the Is­raeli border bound for the West Bank every two days”, Saqqa said.

He said average monthly ex­ports allowed total 150 tonnes, starting in January and ending when the strawberry seasons ends in March.

Saqqa said it was not immedi­ately clear if the current exports were a one-time allowance or mark a gradual easing of the siege that would allow additional ex­ports from Gaza after March.

Saqqa and Gaza farmers said Israel allowed them to export the strawberries elsewhere, such as to Europe, but shipping fees ate up their small profit margin and made the fruit less competitive.

“The most feasible and profit­able [option] is exporting to the West Bank,” Saqqa added.

Mahmoud Khellayel, chairman of the Gaza-based association for growing flowers and strawberries, said strawberry exports to the West Bank were trucked overland across the Israeli-controlled com­mercial crossing of Kerem Shalom on the border between Gaza and Israel.

“We hope that this positive step will be the first one towards con­tinued strawberry export to the West Bank,” he said.

Ayman Subeih, a 45-year-old farmer who is exporting straw­berries to the West Bank, said he hoped his trade will soon expand to neighbouring countries, such as Israel and Jordan.

“When we export our strawber­ries to the West Bank and abroad, we improve our income and this certainly helps the broken econ­omy in the Gaza Strip to recover,” said Subeih.

He said 1 kg of strawberries sold for 77 US cents in Gaza and almost double that in the West Bank.