“All I Can Do Now is Burn It”

Astal
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by PCHR/ Narratives

Mohammed Yassin al Astal (42) is a farmer from Khan Younis. He rents five dunums of farming land in an agricultural area comprised of 22 dunums of land located to the northwest of Khan Younis, in the south of the Gaza Strip.

For the past few weeks, he has been forced to burn his crops of mint and basil: "We started burning our crops earlier this month, when the border was repeatedly closed for all exports, and we have been burning crops since."

He continues: "Because the border crossing has been closed, I am now forced to burn 10 tonnes of mint, 2 tonnes from every dunum I planted. It was ready for harvest and export but, while the border was closed, the plants went past their prime. I have to harvest the mint leaves anyway, in order to prevent diseases from getting into the plants. We put the leaves on big piles, let them dry out, and then burn it all. If I had been able to export, it could have brought me 30,000 Euros. All I can do now is burn it."

According to a joint statement issued by the Israeli military and COGAT on 21 March, it was "[i]n response to the rocket fire" from Gaza into Israel that morning that the Israeli Prime Minister and Defence Minister decided that Kerem Shalom crossing would be closed. Furthermore, the statement announced, "These changes will continue until the IDF is otherwise instructed by the political echelon." From 21 March until 18 April, the Kerem Shalom border crossing was completely closed for 16 days. The border was closed variously due to Israeli public holidays, in response to rocket fire from Gaza and, on some days, without a stated reason.

"I am able to keep the harvested basil and mint in a refrigerator for three days at most after they are taken off the land. Then the leaves start turning black. Only the chives can last for a week in the refrigerator."

The border closures are not the first difficulty Mohammed has faced as a farmer: "I used to have seven dunums of farming lands in Khan Younis, but the quality of the crops starting to decrease because of the high salinity of the ground water. In 2006, I eventually sold my land. I began to farm on rented land here, because the water is of good quality, which results in good production."

"On these lands, I plant chives, mint, and basil. I started growing these crops two years ago. Having many years of experience as a farmer, and knowing what is required for the international market, I became certified under the Global GAP scheme."

Planting mint and basil was a conscious decision for Mohammed: "The financial return from these herbal crops is much better than for regular crops like tomatoes and cucumbers. One dunum of herbs is better 10 dunums of regular crops. Also, herbal crops are stable and can grow throughout the year, with harvests twice a year. This year, I was hoping to benefit from my investment, but the closure of the border crossing has ruined everything for us."

"In the Gaza market, I can only sell a tiny portion of my harvest, and the prices are very low", says Mohammed, when explaining why it is not feasible for him to invest in transport and market costs involved in selling his goods in the Gaza market. Mohammed's decision to plant crops for the European market was a strategic one : "on the European market, I am able to get between 3 and 5 times the revenue for my mint. The markets are very different. For example, when I try to sell chives here in the market, people laugh at me and ask me why I'm selling them and not real onions. Chives are something I produce specifically for the European market. They are not used in cooking here.80% of what I produce meets the standards of the European market, but I am not able to export. Though I am certified under the Global GAP scheme, I'm not able to export my produce to those European markets. When we are ready to export our harvest, we face difficulties."

Mohammed invests a lot in his 5 dunums of land throughout the year: "I spend around $2,500 on hired workforce, fertilizers, seedlings, and water. Additionally, I pay 400 Jordanian Dinars for rent every year, on top of investments in plastic covers, iron frames, and the irrigation system. The rent for the land has to be paid regardless of whether I have been able to export my harvest that year."

Mohammed is the father of two sons and two girls who are between three and 12 years old. He and his family are now facing financial difficulties due to the loss of crops. "I am in debt and, if the situation continues, I will have to think of farming other, low-return crops that I can sell on the local market. I am forced to consider this due to the situation, because I have to pay off my debts. Also, I am responsible for my family and for my workers."

Mohammed struggles with the impact that the losses have on the workers he hires: "During the harvest, I hire about 30 workers for several days. They help me with the harvest. But if I cannot harvest, then there are no returns. If I cannot provide for myself and my own family, then how can I provide a proper income for my workers?"

The uncertainty caused by the border closures means Mohammed must make a difficult decision: "I invest a lot of money in these lands, only to see it get lost eventually. Now we are only thinking of surviving. Life isn't just about survival, or worrying about food and water. I want to develop financial security for my family."

Mohammed doesn't exclude the possibility of migrating in search of viable farming opportunities: "Moving to another place might give us opportunities for a better future. Here, we are dependent on the dates of border closures; these closures can make all the difference for us farmers. I wish that European countries would put pressure on Israel to let us export our goods. All we are trying to do is export a supply of food."

Considering the circumstances, Mohammed is not optimistic about the future: "Every year, I realise that the previous year was better than the current. We are going backwards instead of forwards."

The ongoing Israeli-imposed closure of the Gaza Strip, and punitive bans on exports, constitute a form of collective punishment of the civilian population living under occupation, in contravention of Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. As the Occupying Power, Israel has the legal duty to respect the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), including Article 6, which recognizes the right to work as a fundamental right, and Article 11, which stipulates the right to adequate standard of living, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.

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