Flower cultivation in the Gaza Strip began in the 1980s and flourished in the mid-1990s. Once known for growing citrus and fruit, the farmers of Gaza had been forced to change their produce due to the Israeli occupation policies around the 1967 War, which resulted in evictions and land confiscations (including the West Bank and Gaza Strip). Those practices included preventing citrus exports to Israel, prohibiting planting new trees or replacing old ones, and going over to growing only specific crops—such as strawberries. Within this context, farmers in the Gaza Strip started to look into flower planting, and – thanks to the availability of workers, the area’s climate, and international support to help them get started and learn how to best care for the plants – the flower farming business proved to be successful.
Duha Al Musaddar works as an RLS Project Manager in Gaza. Abd Alkarim Al-Reefi and Mohamed Al-Reefi are freelance photographer in Gaza who have worked with multiple local and international organizations.
The floral industry particularly thrived in the north (Beit Lahia) and south (Rafah) of Gaza. However, the Second Intifada put this sector under threat, as Israeli military incursions and land bulldozing forced farmers in northern Gaza to stop. Planting flowers was becoming too dangerous and costly, and farmers were not compensated or insured for any of the damages. As a result, flower cultivation became mainly restricted to the remaining greenhouses in Rafah.
Continuing the Trade, Despite the Challenges
Abu Ayman Abu Halima has been working in the floral industry for 25 years. “We started planting flowers in the mid-eighties”, he reflects. “During that time, flower cultivation was very rewarding, as crossings were open for export and import. We also had international support that provided us with the needed equipment and materials to work in this sector, until we succeeded and our flowers reached the Netherlands”.
Following the Second Intifada in 2000 and due to Israeli military incursions and destruction of Palestinian lands, the situation worsened for Palestinian farmers and “led to major restrictions on crossing and exports”, Abu Ayman proceeds. “The clashes between the Palestinian National Authority and the Israelis following the 2000 Second Intifada”, which severely confined the Palestinians while Israeli military forces made sweeping incursions and destroyed much of the land, “led to major restrictions on crossings and ultimately, the siege of Gaza (2007) led to the complete ban of flower exports. The sector has relatively died out, yet we reserved a couple of dunams [1,000 square metres] for the local market.”
Abu Ayman adds: “We were 50 farmers in the north of Gaza. Each of us had at least 10 to 20 dunams to work on. But today, I am one of the four remaining farmers in all of the Gaza Strip! I insisted on preserving my flower greenhouse so as to provide for the local market, albeit in small part. Although the process is costly, flower cultivation is quite rewarding when there is a good economy and thus more demand. However, our strenuous situation in Gaza has highly impacted the state of the economy, which no longer makes the floral industry rewarding. Knowing that we have a very limited market does not allow us to venture to expand. The local market, which is now our main target, is in deep economic deterioration, under siege, and in an overly populated area. Whereas this sector needs the opposite conditions: a strong economy and an open market to allow for us to expand.”
“These factors largely reduced the floral industry”, Aby Ayman explains, “There used to be at least 500 dunams cultivated with flowers, but there is not more than 10 dunams today. Workers in the field have lost their jobs, as each dunam needs two workers. With the loss of 500 dunams, 1,000 families from this sector have lost their livelihood.”
Ghazi Hijazi, a farmer who began cultivating flowers for international export in 1991, also had to reduce his flower greenhouse. He notes that the many attempts to open crossings with the aim of exporting flowers have all been unsuccessful. The restrictions have made farmers in Gaza unable to deliver flowers as requested by overseas merchants on time. As such, Gaza’s flower market lost its international standing in the global flower stocks—after having been ranked second-place—to other farmers from countries like Morocco and Kenya, which do not face such export restrictions. Prior to the siege, Gaza’s flowers were in high demand and were exported mainly during Christmas, New Year’s, Valentine’s, and International Women’s Day.
According to Abu Ayman, the limited consumption of flowers in Gaza due to the deteriorating conditions often leads to surpluses on the local market. Frequent Israeli military strikes and the siege, coupled with the financial deficits of the Palestinian Authority (whose employees constitute a significant segment of Palestinian society), largely impact the economic cycle, diminish salaries, and cloud Gaza’s future. Undoubtedly, these stifling developments also affect the flower sector. As Abu Ayman explains: “Flowers are a commodity that is in demand during a thriving economy and as per the luxury demand of the community it is marketed in… which is not the case in Gaza.”
“When flowers blossom”, Abu Ayman continues, “There are two options: they either get prepared for an open market, or get destroyed completely. The situation was particularly horrid this year in light of the coronavirus, since we had prepared large amounts of flowers to distribute for Mother’s Day, weddings, and other summer occasions. However, as the season was about to start in March, the authorities announced a state of emergency and banned gatherings and social events, which brought life to a halt. Accordingly, the pandemic paralyzed our plans to market flowers even at the local level. In short, we had to destroy the whole season.”
“Having no other alternative, we can only deal with our challenges through patience”, Abu Ayman concludes. “That is our only option, as we are under siege and cannot reach a larger market outside. I am one of the farmers who had to reduce his previous 20 dunams of flower cultivation (when export was allowed) down to five dunams (for the local market alone). Now, due to the coronavirus, I had to reduce it to three dunams—a decision I made when preparing for the new season this year. We are in the shrinking stage, but are not sure what the future holds. Some flower greenhouses were given over to growing citrus fruits or vegetables, but we hope that flower cultivation – even if limited – does not cease to exist in Gaza. We won’t stop working in this field. We hope that crossings reopen so that we can export again. This would help us thrive. But as long as we are under siege and limited in the local market the flower cultivation will not be very fruitful.”
Cultivating Flowers under Siege
Waseem, a flower shop owner from Gaza who started his flower business in Gaza in 2000, explains the changes that took place in this sector. According to him, “the sector used to be more dynamic when there was demand for flowers in the local market, not to mention overseas. Now, however, due to the political developments (particularly the siege), and the economic situation that gets worse each year (most recently with the reduction of the PA employees’ salaries and now the COVID-19 crisis), this sector is under heavy pressure.”
“These days”, Waseem continues, “demand for flowers is confined to occasions like weddings and holidays, whereas before people used to frequently buy flowers every week for work, home, to give to people, or visit patients. But now that people are mainly focusing on covering their basic needs, there is less demand for flowers. I can see that each year the demand is less and less.”
Waseem affirms that people in Gaza are trapped in a cycle, in which they cannot afford to buy flowers for various occasions as they once did. Purchasing flowers has become restricted to rare occasions, and if so, they have to be economical. Consequently, he now limits the amounts he buys from farmers, which in turn reduces the number of flowers cultivated in greenhouses. Of the 100 farmers who once cultivated flowers in Rafah, only a few remain.
Gaza, in his view, has been suffering from the siege for 13 years, while the coronavirus has further impacted not only Gaza but the world at large. That said, Waseem still persists in his work: “We will continue until we get out of this crisis. We hope that the circumstances will improve so that people will be able to create, develop, and grow again. It would be great to see Gaza exporting like it once did – as it was famous for shipping citrus and many other crops like strawberries. It is sad to think of how Gaza, which was known for its exports, is now importing flowers, citrus, and watermelons like it never did before.”
The blockade has not only denied the development of Palestinian economy, but it also led to a state of de-development by damaging the infrastructure with frequent military strikes and imposed restrictions. Aside from affecting people’s ability to export to the global market, the siege has also affected people’s ability to import needed materials, equipment, and products.
These repercussions are unsurprising, since Gaza’s residents themselves are unable to grow and connect with the rest of the world they have been denied from. It has become too difficult to develop human capital, which is essential for a strong economy and an independent society. The lack of opportunities, high unemployment, and extreme poverty rate due to Israeli policies have had a spill-over effect in creating a fragmented and dependent society. COVID-19 comes within an already complex context in an area deemed uninhabitable. All of those elements combined make hopes for development grim and generate even more uncertainty about the future and life in the Gaza Strip.
The story of flower cultivation in the Gaza Strip is a mere glimpse of the impact of the Israeli occupation and 13-year-siege of Gaza. Despite the challenges and high costs, the floral industry continues to have great importance for the Gaza Strip. After all, the flower farming business used to contribute around 25 million US dollars to the national income annually, with 4,500 workers in the sector. In light of that fact, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip continue to create opportunities and farmers maintain their flower cultivation, clinging to the hope that the flower sector will flourish once again.
Similarly, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, despite all obstacles, continue to create opportunities and resist with any means possible. But without lifting the siege and ending the occupation, there can be no functioning and strong economy, nor an independent and prosperous society.