Gaza farmers struggle in war aftermath

Israel’s war on Gaza has taken its toll on all economic sectors, with the agriculture industry hit especially hard.

'In every war, [Israel] invades the land but we plant it again,' said one Gazan farmer [AFP]

Deir al-Balah, Gaza – Only days after a ceasefire was declared in Gaza, ending a 51-day bombardment by Israel, hundreds of farmers showed up at a distribution centre in al-Zawayda outside Deir al-Balah in central Gaza to receive sacks of fodder.

“We are distributing fodder and barley for all the sheep and goats in Gaza,” said Ciro Fiorillo, local head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), to the crowd of assembled farmers. “For every herding family, we will be able to give the fodder needed to feed each animal for a month and a half.”

Funded by the Canadian government, the fodder distribution was aimed at sustaining the remaining livestock in the area. Two major Israeli military operations within the past three years have drastically reduced Gaza’s number of sheep and goats: A census in 2010 registered 73,500 animals, while only 58,000 were enlisted for fodder distribution this summer.

“This means that more than 15,000 animals are missing. We don’t know if these have died because there is no fodder or water. We just know that they are no longer there, which means that something like 20 percent of the animal population has been lost. This is a huge value,” Fiorillo told Al Jazeera.

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In August, as Israeli bombs were still falling over Gaza, the FAO estimated that half of Gaza’s population of poultry had died either due to direct hits on their shelters or a lack of care because of access restrictions during the fighting. The animals form the livelihood of Gaza’s 3,600 herding families, among the poorest segments of the population. “Essentially a lot of people have simply lost the means to survive,” Fiorillo noted.

Piling white sacks of fodder onto a donkey-led cart, Talal Jamil Munther said he lost the equivalent of $7,000 during the war. “We had sheep and cows and pigeons – most of them lost,” Munther told Al Jazeera. “We manage due to humanitarian aid and hard work, but we live from day to day and whatever path lies before us we will follow. What else can we do?”

Although most food on dinner tables in Gaza is imported, local produce is an important source of nutritious and affordable food. But according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, the Palestinian Consumer Price Index increased six percent in August compared to the year before due largely to spikes in the prices of fresh vegetables, fruits and dairy. As the price of tomatoes almost tripled and the price of eggs and potatoes increased 40 percent during the war, only the richest in Gaza have been able to buy fresh and locally produced goods.

The barbaric Israeli attack targeted the whole social and economic life of the Gaza Strip. This attack resulted in huge losses in several sectors which will take many years to be recovered.

by - Haifa al-Agha, minister of Women's Affairs

Seven weeks of shelling throughout the summer destroyed large areas of Gaza’s 17,000 hectares of cropland, as well its agricultural infrastructure such as greenhouses, pumping facilities, irrigation systems and animal shelters. And as farmers had to flee their lands, almost all crops that had not been harvested before July were lost.

Even before the summer’s surge in violence, around 1.1 million or two thirds of the population of Gaza were regularly receiving food assistance. But according to the  FAO, this number rose by 700,000 over the summer.

“The Israeli attacks deliberately and systematically targeted the trees, stones, people, and even animals and birds,” said Haifa al-Agha, the minister of Women’s Affairs, who was in Deir Balah to meet with Gazan farmers on behalf of the Palestinian Authority’s new unity government: “The barbaric Israeli attack targeted the whole social and economic life of the Gaza Strip. This attack resulted in huge losses in several sectors which will take many years to be recovered.”

According to the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture, the losses sustained by the agricultural sector reached roughly $500m, including $350m in direct losses. In addition, the Palestinian Authority has estimated the cost of reconstruction in Gaza at $7.8bn, including $250m to the agriculture sector.

A recent report by the World Bank found the Palestinian economy had entered into a recession even before the summer, with 70 percent living on less than $2 a day. The conflict only added to an already dire economic situation, Steen Lau Jorgensen, the World Bank country director for the West Bank and Gaza, told Al Jazeera.

“The recent conflict has had a severe impact on Gaza’s economy in all sectors, in addition to the tragic humanitarian losses,” Jorgensen said. “Within this fragile sociopolitical context, economic recovery becomes a priority.”

The report says the blame falls on political uncertainty and Israeli restrictions on movement and access for people and goods, and emphasises the need for the Palestinian Authority to unify and strengthen its governance across the West Bank and Gaza. It concludes by noting the reconstruction of Gaza must not be limited to getting back to the situation that existed before the summer onslaught, but rather focus on rebuilding the whole economy. “The lack of a comprehensive peace agreement leads to a vicious cycle of economic decline and conflict,” Jorgensen said.

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At the fodder distribution centre in Deir Al-Balah, Fiorillo explained that the FAO seeks to ensure maximum profit for the Palestinian economy by buying the fodder from local suppliers instead of importing it. Still, for some farmers it takes much more to make up for the damage caused by the war.

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East of Deir Balah, close to the Israeli wall that encapsulates the small coastal strip, Eyad Zidan Abu Ghuleiba looks at his burned and destroyed olive fields and demolished home.

“I had five dunams [0.5 hectares] of olive trees. They were dug up by the bulldozers of the [Israeli] occupation,” Abu Ghuleiba said. “The trees were around 50 years old – now they are all gone.”

He explains that around 50 families, constituting hundreds of people from the same tribe, live in the area. They are all farmers, but have slowly seen their lands destroyed during years of continuous military operations.

“This area has seen several invasions. In every war, [Israel] invades the land but we plant it again,” said Abu Ghuleiba. He pointed to his two cousins: “This man had a well and fertile land with olive and palm trees. It was worth $40,000, but now he has no income to feed his 12 children. And this guy has 15 children. They used to make a living from the olives and were waiting for the harvest but now they have nothing.”

According to the 42-year-old farmer, his ancestors have owned the land for over 200 years, and despite the crops being repeatedly destroyed, they have no other option but to replant. “What else can we do? Give us an alternative and we will leave. But if all farmers left their lands, the Gaza Strip will be empty of people.”

Source: Al Jazeera