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Gaza flowers make way back to Europe markets.

Summary: This time last year Adham Hijazi was feeding his world-class carnations to animals, but now he hopes they will reach European markets after Israel eased its closures on the Gaza Strip.

This time last year Adham Hijazi was feeding his world-class carnations to animals, but now he hopes they will reach European markets after Israel eased its closures on the Gaza Strip.

For the first time since the Islamist Hamas movement seized power in the territory in June 2007, Gaza's flower and strawberry farmers may be able to export most of their product to Europe with help from The Netherlands.

"There are promises that the crossings will remain open for exports," the 33-year-old farmer says as workers clip carnations and pack them into crates in a sprawling greenhouse near the southern Gaza town of Rafah. "Last year our losses were huge. I alone lost $800,000," he says. "We harvested the flowers and then we fed them to the sheep and cows."

Israel allowed only limited exports of flowers and strawberries -- Gaza's main cash crops -- during the season following the bloody Hamas takeover in June 2007 before halting all exports in January 2008, according to the Palestine Trade Center (Paltrade), which works with the World Bank.

Resuming exports

Exports only resumed after Israel's devastating 22-day war on Hamas in December 2008 and January 2009, when 14 truckloads of carnations were allowed out of Gaza, according to Paltrade.

"The difficulty was that the peak of the season was far gone, and another issue was that many farmers had stopped by then," said a Dutch official involved in the export projects, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

This season, Israel began allowing exports in December, and since then more than a million flowers, mostly roses and carnations, have been exported to The Netherlands, where many are then sent on to markets in Russia and Europe.

"So far it has been working well... There is a regular export taking place," the official says, adding that roughly three shipments of 150,000 flowers were passing through the crossings each week.

Farmers near Rafah have planted some 30 hectares (75 acres) of flowers with assistance from The Netherlands, according to Said al-Rai, the Palestinian coordinator of the project.

"The produce is distinguished by its high quality and deep-rooted reputation in European markets," he says, adding that they expect to export 35 million flowers this season, mainly roses and carnations.

Gaza's strawberry growers have also resumed exports after nearly two years, under a similar program with Agrexco, an Israeli firm that has marketed and distributed Gaza produce to Europe since the 1980s under its "Coral" brand.

Peak season

However, Israel only began allowing exports at the start of January, causing the growers to miss out on the first two months of the four-month peak season.

Since then around 40 tons of strawberries have been exported, according to the Dutch official.

The lush fields around the village of Beit Lahiya near the border with Israel boast some of the best strawberries in the region, but they were damaged when tanks and bulldozers rumbled through the area during the war.

"We struggled and we farmed in order to export in the period between Nov. 15 and Dec. 25, but Israel did not open the crossings in this period despite the efforts by The Netherlands," says Assad Othman Yassin, the head of marketing in the Hamas-run agricultural ministry.

"On Jan. 3 we exported 21 tons, but in the past we always began exporting in the middle of October and continued until March. In a normal season we would export 1,800 tons, or about 70 tons a day," he adds.

This year farmers around Beit Lahiya have planted 50 hectares (124 acres), compared with 85 hectares (210 acres) in previous years, according to the local farming cooperative.

The farmers have also complained about delays at Israel's Kerem Shalom crossing, where boxes of produce can sit in the desert sun for hours at a time.

"Relatively speaking, it's been a good season so far," the Dutch official says, but he admits that Kerem Shalom is "not an ideal crossing."

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Publication:Al Arabiya (Saudi Arabia)
Date:Jan 19, 2010
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