Middle East Times

Certification scheme crucial for Gaza farmers

By Amelia Thomas
Middle East Times

Published May 11, 2006

On Sunday, May 7, at around nine in the morning, Palestinian farmer Hassan Shafii was going about his usual day's work on the outskirts of the town of Beit Lahia on the northern edge of the Gaza Strip.
    The 55-year-old farmer was busy in one of his fields, close to an area from which Qassam missiles have recently been launched by militant Palestinian groups into Israel, tending to the irrigation of a recently planted watermelon patch.
    As he worked, he talked with a fellow Gazan farmer on his mobile phone. "You have to remember the $250 for your certificate," his friend was in the process of reminding him, "You have to pay it soon."
    Then, disaster struck. An Israeli military shell, one of the many fired into the region to deter terrorists from launching more attacks against Israel, hit Shafii. On the other end of the line, his colleague feared the worst as the line went dead, and Shafii was killed instantly by shrapnel peppering his body.
    Such occurrences are not rare in an area where daily violence from both sides of the border is increasingly commonplace.
    Indeed, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights states that in just the last fortnight, six Palestinian civilians, including two children, have been killed and over 60 wounded by IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) shelling, while a further two deaths occurred last week after Palestinian national security force members attempted to deactivate an unexploded shell.
    In the past week alone, six civilians have been wounded in the Beit Lahia area, a number of homes damaged, and, along with Shafii, a second civilian, 65-year-old Moussa Al Sawarka, was killed.
    Sawarka had been grazing camels in the Khousa area, to the north of Beit Lahia town, when he was killed by shell shrapnel to the head on May 6, just 500 meters from the spot where, the next day, Shafii, too, would die.
    Currently, the Jerusalem-based Israel/Palestinian Center for Research and Information (IPCRI) is in the twofold process of dealing with the direct aftermath of Shafii's death. First, says director Gershon Baskin, the center will be petitioning both the Israeli ministry of defense and the ministry of justice over compensation for the family of the deceased.
    "There are cases," says Baskin, "when it's recognized by Israel that a killing was a mistake".
    However, he admits, such cases are tragically thin on the ground. Shafii left behind a wife and 10 children, who are all now facing a dark future without an income, so the center is secondly setting up a fund for donations to aid the afflicted family.
    "The family has lost everything," says Baskin, "They won't receive aid from the Palestinian Authority, and I'm afraid that the petition to the ministry of defense will be a lengthy process."
    The reason that, of all recent deaths in Gaza, the Israel/Palestinian Center for Research and Information is focusing on Shafii's is due to his direct connection with the organization. The certificate to which Shafii's friend alluded just moments before his death was the successful result of a training scheme for Gazan farmers, involving a recent initiative known as the 'EUREPGAP protocol'.
    Shafii was part of a Gazan farmer strawberry cooperative, which had been exporting its strawberries to Europe through Israeli distributors for the last decade. Now, in order for farmers to continue or increase exports to major European retail chains, they must receive certification under the EUREPGAP scheme, which ensures a minimum standard of "Good Agricultural Practices".
    The IPCRI organized the first batch of training for some of the roughly 800 exporting farmers in Gaza, training 40 participants for certification. Shafii was one of those farmers who had just successfully completed the course.
    This certification is particularly crucial for Gaza's farmers, who, since the closure of the main Israel/Palestinian Karni crossing earlier this year, have already suffered increasing isolation and problems with getting their perishable goods to market on time.
    Without certification, says Baskin, it is unlikely that Gazan farmers will be able to export to Europe next season, a situation that would have catastrophic effects for the already fragile Gazan agricultural economy.
    "In Europe, Gazan farmers get 20 shekels [$4.50] per kilo for their strawberries," explains Baskin, "Here, they might get just two [$0.45]".
    On May 8, at the 16th International Exhibition of Agricultural Products currently in progress at the Tel Aviv exhibition center, the IPCRI was able to bring most of the newly certified group - which would have included Shafii - to Tel Aviv, to visit the stands and talk to fellow farmers from across the globe.
    This in itself was no easy achievement: access to and from the Gaza Strip stands currently at almost zero, and entry permits to Israel for those under 35 years of age are impossible to obtain.
    Nevertheless, despite the small triumph of getting almost all the farmers safely to Tel Aviv, the mood among them was subdued.
    "These people work hard all season, facing all kinds of different problems: environmental, water, economic, political, agricultural," says Baskin, "And then, at the end of it all, they can't always get their produce out of Gaza."
    For example, he continues, while roughly 70 percent of last year's strawberry crop managed to get out of Gaza before the tightening of restrictions at checkpoints, almost none of the flower crop could be distributed.
    "In the end, the farmers didn't even cut the flowers from the fields," relates Baskin, "They missed Valentines Day, Mothers Day; all the events that usually provide them with an income. There's no way that Gaza can absorb all its agricultural produce of this kind."
    It is estimated that Gazan flower farmers lost roughly $650,000 last season alone, a vast amount in an area that still constitutes one of the most poverty-stricken on earth.
    Nevertheless, the staff of the IPCRI is more optimistic than the Gazan farmers themselves about the future of agriculture in the beleaguered Gaza Strip. Currently, the center is seeking funding to equip the next batch of Gaza's farmers with the appropriate certification for exporting to Europe.
    Moreover, the government of the Netherlands has recently pledged $1 million in aid, to help farmers replant and prepare for the next season. The money, in order not to fall prey to current restrictions on Palestinian financing from the wider world, will be handed over to an NGO, the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee, from where it will be distributed to farmers in need, thus bypassing governmental organizations completely.
    "I also hope," says Baskin, "that the new minister of defense will be able to ease the situation, that he [Amir Peretz] will be more receptive than his predecessor [Shaul Mofaz] to the changes that need to be made. We're currently preparing a letter to him with all our requests and suggestions."
    Meanwhile, in Gaza, the Shafii family is coming to terms with life without their husband and father, and looking for ways in which to go on. While Baskin hopes that his organization's fundraising efforts will ease their situation in the short term, the future for the family, and for the bereaved families who join their ranks on an almost weekly basis, remains bleak.

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