“Whatever became of the settlement lands? Such lost opportunities! The land has returned and what waste”, we hear time and again from Zionist apologists and their kind. “If only Gazans would make a life for themselves rather than blaming their problems on others!”
Leaving aside the obvious question of how a territory and its people whose every marker of sovereignty is effectively controlled by an occupying power that nevertheless refuses to recognize its responsibility as an occupier can “build a state” and “make a life”, the Gaza government has actually been doing some pretty impressive things.
On Thursday, I had the opportunity to tour “mu7ararat Gaza”-the liberated lands of Gaza, i.e. the former settlements.
It was a follow-up to an interview colleague Maggie Schmitt and I did with the Minister of Agriculture, Mohammad Al-Agha. In consultation with dozens of international and local NGOs, the Gaza Ministry has drawn up an impressive “ten-year plan” aimed at reducing Gaza’s dependence on imported Israeli produce, incorporating organic farming on a wider scale, and generally “helping Gaza help itself” through a return to more sustainable agricultural practices (such as relying more on rain-fed crops rather than cash cropping for export which involves wasteful amounts of water and an abundance of pesticides, and is subject to the whim of Israeli authorities and their punitive border closure).
The plan has been mocked by many people Maggie and I spoke with in the private or nongovernmental sectors: Gaza can never be self-sufficient! And why should it? It doesn’t make economic sense!
So we were curious-what was the eye rolling about? Was it as laughable as they made it seem? In short: not at all. In fact I think few people have actually read the thick manifesto (it hasn’t been published yet, but we got a sneak peak).
In the former settlement of Kfar Darom, where sniper towers once lined the landscape, there is a massive organic composting facility for seasonal plants (as well as a sewage water composting for trees) and pilot organic farm where workshops are conducted to teach local farmers organic practices. Those who choose to implement organic farming are rewarded with free compost and saplings.
In the former Gush Qatif bloc, further south, infinite rows of several varieties of date palms and young olive saplings, both rain-fed crops that do very well in Gaza, dot the horizon as far as the eye can see.
In another section of this vast empty expanse is the “fruit garden”: carefully landscaped donums of a variety of fruit trees, marked with signs by each row, such as mangoes, citrus, apples, and stone fruits. Gaza now relies heavily on imported fruits from Israel, as tens of thousands of its own trees were razed to the ground during the second Intifada, and most recently during Cast Lead. “We hope within 3 years, for these trees to begin to bear fruit, and within 5, for the olives and dates to become productive,” explained my guide.
Perhaps most interesting of all was a farm which grows Oyster mushrooms in closely monitored environs, under the enthusiastic watch of agricultural engineer Amjad al-agha .
The resulting products are either dried or ground and sold to local restaurants, which use them for soup, salads, and sandwiches, and curries, or distributed in plastic baskets to a woman’s empowerment group to finish cultivating and ultimately to sell as a form of income generation.
Al-Agha said the mushrooms provide an alternative source of protein for people, and are a relatively quick and easy to grow (I keep getting asked if there is any export of these products: no, since there no exports-save for some flowers that the Dutch feverishly lobbied the Israeli government to release-being allowed out by Israel. There was also a fish farm, a chicken farm, and much more.
“The idea is to implement a strategic shift in the vision for Gaza’s agricultural sector, as a response to the situation we are now in for the foreseeable future” explained Minister Agha. “We are not looking to be 100% self-sufficient; in fact we are not even saying this is possible, but we are looking to increase local food production, organic agriculture, and self-sufficiency overall.”
Still, some local experts are critical, saying that without including technocrats in the process, or seeking skilled local consultants that could help them with the methodology, implementation, and possibly exports, they will never be able to reach the level of sophistication they desire.
“Gaza could specialize in mushroom cultivation, for example. What we need is a kind of semi-government that would help bridge the gap between the Hamas government and European governments, and to provide the financial and political backing behind such a project” economist Omar Shaban explained, adding that many in the Hamas government are “resistant and suspicious of such an idea”.
The plan and the projects are seen locally as markers of the ability of the Hamas government to defy the siege and its impacts, even if the results have yet to be seen very far in the future.
For more on this topic, check out Jon Elmer’s “Going organic: The siege on Gaza“.