Siege of Gaza squeezes life out of the land
Rory McCarthy, The guardian. May 13, 2008
The field is planted with shoulder-high rows of corn and is so close to Israel that the tall concrete boundary wall is well within sight, along with the Israeli military jeeps on their regular patrols into northern Gaza.
For Abid Razzaq Ouda, 40, who farms this land, this brings its own complications. His field is sometimes used by Palestinian militants to fire rockets or mortars into southern Israel and the Israeli military mounts so many operations here that the farmers dare not risk going out at night for fear of being hit.
Last month, after militants used the field for a rocket attack, the Israeli military sent in armoured bulldozers which carved sweeping paths through his corn, tearing down the crops and wrecking the extensive plastic irrigation pipes. Then a bulldozer demolished the cement hut housing the water pump in the corner of the field. Ouda, still heavily in debt from the shortfall in his earlier strawberry crop, has no money to repair the pump and so this season's half-matured corn is already lost.
He is critical of the Israelis and of the militants too, an indication that there is considerable, and perhaps growing, frustration across Gaza with the armed groups who continue their attacks on Israel. "The fighters are very bad for us," Ouda said. "Many times we have tried to talk to them but they just threaten us."
Once Ouda and his neighbouring farmers tried to stop a militant who stood in their field to film a nearby attack. They seized his camera and drove him away. Minutes later a large group of gunmen returned, took back the camera and warned the farmers not to interfere again. "It was a very bad day for us," said Ouda. "Unfortunately the fighters do understand the effect they are having on us, but they ignore it. They are very young, the ones who come to fight, but they get paid for it."
Even without the militants and the Israeli raids, it is a very bad time to be a farmer in Gaza. The agricultural industry is a pillar of the Gazan economy but one that was reliant on exports and on the import of seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and packaging materials. However, Israel has mounted an ever-tightening economic blockade of Gaza, the land it calls a "hostile territory". All exports have been halted and imports are restricted to a limited supply of humanitarian goods.
The World Bank estimates that, as a direct result of the closures, Gaza's two biggest farming export industries - carnations and strawberries - saw heavy losses last year of more than $6m (£3m) each. Now a fuel shortage means many agricultural pumps and wells are no longer working, leaving crops to wither and forcing up the price of food (the price of tomatoes in Gaza City has risen six-fold).
Last September, Ouda planted his fields with strawberries, taking a chance that the crossings might re-open and allow his crop to earn a handsome return. It was a costly gamble: the crossings remained shut and when they were briefly opened for a special strawberry export to Europe there were such delays that the crop wilted and he made a loss on the sale. On the local market, strawberries sell for just a tenth of their export price, with the result that Ouda still owes $30,000 from his strawberry season.
As he speaks, a buyer arrives with a horse and cart to negotiate a price to cut down what is left of the corn crop to use as animal fodder. After several minutes of protracted argument, Ouda sells the crop for 400 shekels (£60), a crop that he calculates cost him more than 3,000 shekels to plant and maintain.
"I'm not happy about that but I want to be done with it," he said. It is the first time in a lifetime of farming that he has ever sold a crop for fodder. Now he must rely on the small savings he has to feed his wife and six children, the youngest of whom is just three weeks old, until the autumn farming season comes round.
Ouda works the land but could not possibly afford to buy it - a dunam of land, 1,000 square metres, sells for at least £12,000. He was born here in Beit Lahiya, in northern Gaza, and took a correspondence course in geography at an Egyptian university hoping to become a teacher. But that was at a time when Israel still had a complete military and administrative occupation of Gaza with thousands of settlers and soldiers deployed across the strip - anyone working for the state risked being branded a collaborator. So instead he worked in Israel as an agricultural labourer, where he earned a reasonable wage. This ended in 1994, when the rules on Palestinian labour permits changed and Ouda was regarded as too young to enter Israel. Since then he has farmed the fields of others in northern Gaza.
For a while in the late 1990s, Gaza's farmers prospered, until 2000 and the start of the second intifada, the Palestinian uprising, which brought more conflict and more restrictions. Ouda is not a Hamas supporter - he voted for the rival Fatah movement in elections two years ago. He cites Hamas' failings but is also critical of the way the factions have been locked in draining internal conflict.
"Hamas has control and imposed security but on the other hand the siege really squeezed us and they couldn't deal with it," he said. "We just want to concentrate on our lives. Everyone in Gaza wants the crossings to open and to breathe freely."