Raed Musa - Gaza

With feelings of hope mixed with anxiety, the farmer Akram Abu Khousa works hand in hand with his workers in harvesting the "strawberry" crop on his farm in the town of Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip. A "setback" as a result of an Israeli measure that leads to a failure of exports to the West Bank and Gulf markets.

Abu Khoussa - the owner of one of the most famous strawberry farms - is following the harvest process, in order to choose the best and most appropriate fruit in terms of size and degree of ripeness, to which the export specifications apply, and gives a "good reputation" for the strawberry Gaza, which its farmers describe as "red gold".

Abu Khussa and strawberry farmers were overwhelmed with the success of the first export operation of Gulf markets in Bahrain, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and their hopes were raised for a season in which they compensated for the heavy losses suffered during the past years due to the Israeli siege and restrictions on the crossings.

"During the long years of the siege, we faced many problems and obstacles due to the Israeli restrictions on the crossings, which prevented us from being able to export to the West Bank and abroad, while the local market in Gaza does not absorb all the crops, which has exposed us to huge losses," Abu Khoussa told Al Jazeera Net.

Abu Khoussa hopes that their success in exporting to Gulf countries will reflect positively on farmers who were among the most affected by the blockade imposed by Israel since mid-2007.

Israel allowed the export of quantities of strawberries from the Kerem Shalom crossing - the only commercial outlet in Gaza - and from it to Jordan via King Hussein Bridge, on a 48-hour journey, before making its way towards the Gulf markets.

Abu Khoussa hopes that the export process will witness greater ease and flow, as tight procedures and complications affect the quality of the crop.

The farmer Akram Abu Khousa hopes to compensate the heavy losses during the years of the siege (Al-Jazeera Net)

Beit Lahia, the land of gold
Auspicious of an abundant season, Abu Khussa planted eight 8.5 dunums (about 8,500 m 3) of strawberries, most of which was cultivated by the traditional terrestrial method, with the exception of only one dunum cultivated by the hanging method inside greenhouses.

And farmers tend to suspended agriculture, which gives them a three-fold increase in the rate of production, compared to the traditional method.

Abu Khousa said that many farmers have resumed strawberry cultivation after years of reluctance to do so, due to the losses they incurred due to the blockade and the ban on exports, pointing out that local marketing does not cover the costs of agriculture and production that exceed four thousand dollars per dunum with a production of up to three tons.

Abu Khousa himself has suffered from the occupation measures that he believes began since the Al-Aqsa Intifada (September 2000) and intensified with the imposition of the siege, as he was unable for years to reach his four-donum area of ​​land near the former "Dogit" settlement north of the town of Beit Lahia.

This town is concentrated in strawberry cultivation, and according to Abu Khousa, Beit Lahiya soil and its fresh water gives it preference over the rest of the Gaza Strip in producing strawberries with high quality and international specifications, and with the testimony of Dutch experts who have exerted pressure on Israel since 2017 to resume exports.

Gaza farmers choose strawberries with special specifications that tolerate Israeli inspection procedures and complications at the (Al Jazeera) crossings

High quality
The director of the Gaza Agricultural Cooperative Society, Ahmed Al-Shafei, told Al-Jazeera Net that the area planted with strawberries increased from 1,100 dunums last season to 1,700 dunums currently, and it is expected that production will reach more than 5,200 tons.

Strawberry cultivation began in Gaza during the 1960s, with an experimental area of ​​only one and a half acres. With the successes achieved by farmers, the area increased gradually to reach 2,500 dunums in 2005, before it was reduced by the Israeli siege and restrictions to only 450 dunums in 2015.

The strawberry planting season begins in early September, while farmers begin harvesting it from early December to late March.

Al-Shafei explained that the success of strawberry cultivation depends on several factors related to the type of seed and soil, the date of planting and the water used, in addition to the methods of care and follow-up from the beginning until the harvest.

He said that this great effort made by about 400 farmers is added to the concern about the occupation measures at the only commercial crossing that represents the "lung" that Gaza breathes.

Gaza farmers are keen to choose strawberry completely immature to overcome the long distance for export through the Israeli crossings (Al Jazeera Net)

Strawberries revive the economy
The spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture in Gaza, Adham Al-Basiouni, told Al-Jazeera Net that the continuation of export operations is beneficial to farmers and the local economy.

Bassiouni said that half of Gaza's strawberry production is for export, while the other half is to cover the need of the local market in the Strip.

The strawberry season provides work opportunities for hundreds of workers during the harvest season, as well as the association of thousands of merchants and sellers with this season, which contributes to reducing the high unemployment rates in Gaza.