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Hope smells sweet as Gazans export strawberries to Europe
Nidal Al-Mughrabi
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 29 - 11 - 2010

GAZA: Surrounded by the fragrance of millions of packed strawberries, Gaza farm workers rose at dawn Sunday to witness the start of exports to Europe that they hope will herald a wider expansion of trade.
“Strawberries. Fraises. Erdbeeren.” said the labels in English, French and German on stacks of boxes of tenderly packed berries in punnets of 250 grams (8.8 oz). The Gaza farmers hope to send 1,000 tonnes to Europe through a partly eased Israeli blockade in the coming week.
“On Sunday, we are exporting two truckloads of strawberries as a trial and then the number will rise to 10 trucks a day until they are all shipped out,” said Raed Fattouh, Palestinian coordinator of supply from Israel to Gaza.
Officials confirmed that two truckloads indeed crossed into Israel en route to Europe on Sunday.
Ahmed Al-Shafai, one of the biggest farm entrepreneurs in the small enclave framed by Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean, said the Palestinian produce would first arrive in the Netherlands and then go on to Belgium and France.
“We are ready. Our products meet the standards of Global Gap,” he said. The Global Gap Project aims to improve farmers' ability to grow produce according to international standards.
Israel has blockaded the Gaza Strip since 2007 to cripple Hamas, which seized control of the territory three years ago from the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas.
This is not the first time Israel has permitted exports of Palestinian strawberries and flowers from Gaza. But it coincides with the enlargement of a logistics hub at the Kerem Shalom crossing point in the south, for what Gaza business hopes will be a revival of wider trade next year.
To begin with, Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the European Union agreed to deploy PA staff at Kerem Shalom. Hamas is left out of the equation but tacitly permits it.
An Israeli official said Kerem Shalom's capacity will double to 300 trucks a day by the end of this year and to 400 in 2011. “We will have the capacity,” he said. But security arrangements were paramount for Israel and it was too soon to speak of a change in policy. “Only after we resolve this can we start talking about (a wide range of) exports,” he said.
Exports have been seen by Israel as highly suspect since March 2004, when two Palestinian teenagers infiltrated the Israeli port of Ashdod by hiding in a shipping container. They blew themselves up, killing 10 people.
Israeli forces smashed Gaza in a three-week assault in early 2009 to force Hamas to stop firing rockets into its southern towns. It has restricted imports to stop arms reaching Hamas and to weaken its hold on Gaza's 1.5 million inhabitants.
But after an international outcry in June, when Israeli naval commandos killed nine Turkish pro-Palestinian activists aboard a flotilla trying to breach the blockade, Israel eased rules on what Gaza could import.
Today “the shops are full of consumer goods that were not available half a year ago”, says the European Union representative to Palestine, Christian Berger. “But this is not enough to change lives significantly.”
The 27-nation European Union spends millions to support the private sector in Gaza via the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and the Palestinian Authority. But ultimately, the EU says, Gaza must export in order to achieve greater economic independence.
Berger said peppers and tomatoes may join this year's planned exports of berries and flowers. But to restore trade in manufactured goods, Palestinian businesses will need the right mix of imports, including new machinery.
“They will also need to restore their contacts and make known they can deliver with predictability,” says Berger.
Before the Israeli blockade, aReviving exports could partly redress the economic reverses, creating new employment for up to 40,000 in the enclave, provided long-delayed reconstruction can commence.

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