The theft of entire greenhouses and their equipment has put out of action about 70 acres of the roughly 1000 acres left by Jewish settlers as the basis of a Palestinian agriculture industry when Israel withdrew from Gaza last September.
The looting began when gunmen from a militia hired to protect the greenhouses abandoned their posts early this month because they had not been paid, officials from a government company that operates the project said.
"The looters took their time to dismantle the greenhouses and to uproot entire greenhouses and carry them away," said Amid al-Masri, head of the Palestine Economic Development Company's (PEDC) greenhouse project.
The Palestinian Authority project was set up with the help of private donors who paid $13 million to Jewish settlers to leave their greenhouses intact after the withdrawal.
The Israeli greenhouse owners had earned tens of millions of dollars annually from lucrative crops that included flowers and herbs that they sold abroad.
"The (Palestinian) Authority bears responsibility for what happened as they failed to send policemen to protect the greenhouses"
Palestine Economic Development Company
Al-Masri said he feared the looting could hurt international support for other development projects in the Gaza Strip.
"It will undermine our efforts to privatise the project as we hoped and also it could frighten investors aiming at other projects," he said.
Al-Masri said police were investigating whether gunmen from the Fatah Popular Army, who were hired to protect the greenhouses, were involved in the theft.
"The (Palestinian) Authority bears responsibility for what happened as they failed to send policemen to replace members of the Popular Army to protect the greenhouses," he said.
The development company's head, Basil Jaber, said the greenhouse project had been hit hard by the loss of $2 million worth of crops that could not be exported to European markets because of Israel's closure of the commercial crossing from Gaza.
The Karni Crossing, through which
goods are exported is closed
Israeli security sources said the crossing was shut because of intelligence reports that attacks were planned there and that Palestinian officials rejected Israel's offer of alternative crossing points.
PEDC officials said the company was making a loss as a result of the greenhouse looting and the Karni closure.
"The company is not expected to make any profits this year because of the losses it has suffered so far," al-Masri said.
The company has devoted $33 million of its $100 million in Palestinian Authority funds to developing the greenhouses. The project has created about 4000 jobs in the Gaza Strip, where unemployment is about 50 percent.