To Make It Stateside, Gaza Strip Exports Must Pass Israeli Obstacles
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People living in cities in the Northeast may find mint, chives and basil in their grocery stores that have been grown in the Gaza Strip. Despite tight Israeli restrictions on exports from the impoverished Palestinian enclave, Gazan farmers have started building a U.S. market.
But as NPR's Emily Harris reports, the obstacles to building a real export economy are hard to overcome.
EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: In a hothouse in the Gaza Strip, workers kneel on sandy soil to harvest young chives. They slice the thin green stalks free with small knives.
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HARRIS: These workers earn about $1.40 an hour. Cheap labor is one of Gaza's competitive advantages. Later, in a small packing room, the workers sharpen those knives before another trim and sort for the U.S. market.
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HARRIS: This is part of the slow effort to rebuild Gaza's export industry, crushed after the militant Islamist group Hamas took power seven years ago and Israel sealed the territory's land and sea borders. Thousands of light manufacturing companies closed. Dutch economic specialist Martijn Lucassen says Gaza's agriculture export business nearly died, too.
MARTIJN LUCASSEN: Of course, there will always be agricultural produce as long as there's people living here because of the needs that they have. But to do high value crops, high quality products that have good price on the international markets, that was something that was at risk of dying out.
HARRIS: For several years, international aid organizations supported Gazan farmers. Israel allowed some agricultural exports to start again four years ago. Herbs are the only product from Gaza sold in the United States. The amounts are tiny - a thousand or two pounds a month. But since the first shipment last June, sales of chives and mint to the U.S. have roughly doubled.
Flowers, vegetables and strawberries go to Europe. But first, everything has to get out of Gaza. There is only one way.
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HARRIS: At the Kerem Shalom border crossing between Gaza and Israel, semi-trucks and forklifts zip around a maze of high concrete walls. Everyday, much more goes in to Gaza than comes out. Israeli liaison office spokeswoman Yarden Rubinshtein reads from the list of what's going into Gaza this day.
YARDEN RUBINSHTEIN: Food and snacks, bottles of water, soft drinks, soft drinks, soft drinks, soft drinks.
HARRIS: Makeup, shampoo, medical equipment, a dryer, cattle.
RUBINSHTEIN: There should be 280 trucks today going in.
HARRIS: Going out, 50 boxes of carnations.
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HARRIS: Gaza farmers say their biggest obstacle is this crossing. Citing security, Israel has set up a system where Palestinian drivers unload goods coming out, then leave them in an area surrounded by concrete barricades. Israeli soldiers inspect everything, then Israeli trucks come in to haul the goods to ports. The crossing closes unexpectedly, sometimes in reaction to rocket fire from Gaza into Israel.
Gaza carnation farmer Hamdal Hijazi says delays make it difficult to guarantee a steady supply of good, fresh flowers to Europe's main flower market in Amsterdam.
HAMDAL HIJAZI: (Through Translator) Sometimes seeds come in late, which delays planting. Sometimes flowers spoil waiting to get out and have to be thrown away. The buyer in Holland can instantly see the quality of the flower. If anything's wrong, it affects the price of the whole shipment.
HARRIS: There are other problems. Gaza, with its restrictions, can no longer beat countries like Egypt and Ethiopia, which have been building up their carnation and other agricultural industries. The amount of land planted inside Gaza is shrinking and the demand for housing is rising. To improve marketability, Israel holds training sessions for Gazan farmers. Israeli agriculture expert Uri Madar believes that's more than the Hamas-led Gazan government does.
URI MADAR: (Through Translator) The government hasn't given farmers the tools, knowledge or supplies to let them develop export. I think that they're not paying enough attention to something that could bring in more jobs and more foreign currency.
HARRIS: But Palestinians say until they control access to sea or airports, the success of Gaza's produce export business is ultimately in Israeli hands.
Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem.
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