Palestinian Authority to Take Over Gaza Greenhouses

A deal announced last week arranges for the Palestinian Authority to purchase and run greenhouses from Israeli settlers in the Gaza Strip, allowing the multimillion-dollar agricultural business to continue after the planned Israeli pullout from settlements begins later this week. Liane Hansen speaks with Steven Cohen of the Israel Policy Forum.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Even as some settler resistance continued in Gaza this past week, one seed of hope for a peaceful transition was given a fresh chance to bloom. On Friday, representatives for farmers from the Gush Katif settlement signed a $14 million deal to sell most of its greenhouses used to grow fruits and vegetables for export to a private international fund. That fund, the Economic Cooperation Foundation, based in Israel, will eventually hand over the greenhouses to the Palestinians. Stephen Cohen is a national scholar at the Israel Policy Forum. He helped negotiate the agreement. From his home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Cohen explained that the deal was kept under wraps for as long as possible because of concerns that it would increase tensions among the settlers.

Dr. STEPHEN COHEN (National Scholar, Israel Policy Forum): One of the problems that has emerged for the settlers of Gush Katif is that even though many of them were willing to make arrangements with the government to peacefully move without big protest, they found themselves under great social pressure from the settlers coming to them from the West Bank to resist until the last day and to not peacefully leave, and so many of them had to withdraw their agreements.

Since these are the settlers who were going to have the biggest financial loss from the move because they had been successful in developing these greenhouses, this group of people, with whom I am involved, decided that it might be possible to arrange something that would be good for both sides. The settlers would be compensated for these greenhouses rather than destroy them, and that they would be continued to be operated by Palestinians. After all, many Palestinians work there. And that Israelis would arrange for the process of export to continue to go forward since Israel had established the markets in Europe for these agricultural products.

HANSEN: These are big commercial greenhouses. What's in them? I mean, vegetables, flowers?

Dr. COHEN: Yes, vegetables, flowers. The product produces more than $100 million a year, so it makes a lot of difference both to the settlers who are leaving and to the Palestinians who are going to take over. If it works, this could be a big boon to the Palestinian economy in the transition period and also turn out to be a good deal for the international investors who did this, because otherwise they would be in a situation of having to start the Palestinian economy from zero. And this way they would be able to start the Palestinian economy with some good jobs and with the good profits coming from the sale.

HANSEN: What was the atmosphere like in the negotiations?

Dr. COHEN: At the beginning it was very tense, but gradually people began to see that it was to their benefit to figure out a way of doing it and to do it through a third party because they knew they couldn't do it directly.

HANSEN: And everyone would benefit.

Dr. COHEN: Yes. And what's important here is that it shows you the importance of an effective third party. And the United States needs to take that into account about much bigger issues than the question of the greenhouses. It is very difficult for these people who have been in conflict with each other so deeply to reach even simple arrangements. But with an active third party which is determined to make the deal and which takes very seriously the needs of both sides, it could be possible to overcome some of the difficulties. Most people would have said it was impossible to reach an agreement about these problems of the settlers in Gaza, and possible to prevent the destruction of all of this valuable agricultural equipment and products that were developed over these years. But it was able to be done because a third party worked very carefully with each side separately and tried to work out a deal that would meet the needs of each.

HANSEN: Steve Cohen is a scholar at the Israel Policy Forum. He helped negotiate an agreement to sell and transfer greenhouses from the Gush Katif settlers to Palestinian control. Thank you very much.

Dr. COHEN: Thank you very much.

HANSEN: It's 18 minutes past the hour.

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