RAFAH, Gaza Strip, Feb 14 (IPS) - After generations of occupation, Valentine's Day has meant little in the Gaza Strip. But the flowers that lovers presented in Europe have.
Majed Hadaeid, 43, knows that better than most, as he watches livestock make a meal of the flowers he had hoped to export to Europe.
"I have 130 dunams (32 acres)," he says. "All carnations, in 30 different colours, and varieties yielding 16-17 million blossoms per year."
In all, about 480 dunams of plantation produce on average 60 million flowers a year in Gaza between mid-November and mid-May. The seasonal export brings five million dollars in revenue, and means 4,000 jobs.
Hadaeid's nursery is one of the largest. Farmers like him usually sell to the European floral exchange in the Netherlands for distribution. Valentine's Day on Feb. 14 brings the largest sales.
This year, it did not.
Once Israel closed the border crossings, it also ended access to markets outside of Gaza. Israel requires all of Gaza's produce to go through Israel first.
Gaza is permitted to export 75 million flowers to the EU duty free. "This year we managed to export only five million flowers to the Netherlands," says Mahmoud Khlaiel, chairman of the Flowers Producers Benevolent Association in Gaza.
Hadaeid has had to lay off all 200 of his workers. Now his millions of blossoms serve as feed for goats, donkeys, camels and sheep. He says Israel's collective punishment will cost him more than a million dollars this season.
Hadaeid, one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the area, has now taken to day labour to feed his 13 children, aged six months to 20 years. The land on which he grows his flowers is on lease, and he risks losing his entire business. The profits he would normally use to pay for fertilizer, seeds, back wages and supplies are simply not there.
In Gaza, people unable to pay their debts often end up in debtor's prison, as in feudal era Europe. Hadaeid's future appears precarious. "I am not with Hamas or Fatah," he said. "I didn't vote for any party. Israel is to blame for this collective punishment for us all."
As with Hadaeid, so with others. Ayman Okal, a veteran of the industry for 14 years, stands feeding red carnations to a goat at a nearby nursery. "Every season I produce 8-9 million carnations for Christmas and Mothers Day," he says. "But Valentine's is the biggest." Except of course, this year.
Okal says the blockade has cost him around 600,000 dollars. He too has laid off his entire staff, and faces a dark future with six children to feed and a debt to pay off. Fortunately for him, he owns his land.
Producers have been asked to sign papers at the borders saying the flowers are not being exported "because Palestinian producers have decided not to continue shipping."
"This is not true," says Khlaiel. "Israel returns the flowers to Gaza after they are destroyed waiting at the crossings. It costs each grower four dollars to send each bouquet's pots, in addition to the cost of the flowers. Once destroyed through the delays, the grower still must pay the costs."
Flowers from Gaza are marketed in Europe under the brand name Coral. With Valentine's Day past, Mothers Day (May 11) is the last opportunity for growers to recoup a portion of their costs, regain their businesses -- and feed their families.
Farmers are appealing to the EU and to the Netherlands to pressure Israel to open the crossings. (END/2008)
"The world is not dangerous because of those who do harm but because of those who look at it without doing anything." Albert Einstein