For years, Israeli restrictions and unexpected closures of the Gaza Strip's lone commercial crossing have caused severe losses for strawberry growers in the coastal enclave, whose produce is mainly destined for European markets.
But in the current growing season, which began in November and continues through February, the losses have been doubled, as a heavy winter storm hit the region in December, damaging their fields and ripe crops.
Among those coping with the loss is Khader al-Khatib, 58, who planted a patch of nearly two acres with strawberry, hoping to provide for his 20-member family.
"Half of my strawberries have been swamped with water and the other half damaged by severe cold," he told Ma'an.
Tahseen al-Saqa, the general director of marketing in the Ministry of Agriculture, said about 7.4 acres cultivated with strawberries were completely damaged as a result of the storm, and up to 24.7 acres sustained less degrees of damage. He estimated the damage toll at $250,000.
Abdulrazik al-Direblah, another strawberry farmer who works on a low-lying field, said that around half of his blooming crops were swept by harsh winds, rainwater and mud, tearing apart the plastic coverings.
Of the 500 kilograms of strawberry Direblah picked up, only half was suitable for export. Eventually, he sold the produce that did not meet the European standards in the local market, offsetting only 40 percent of their production cost.
Strawberries are one of a handful of items that Israel allows to leave Gaza through the Kerem Shalom crossing, which it controls.
Most of the strawberry growers here plant the seeds early hoping to benefit from the better-paying European market.
However, Israel's export restrictions have compounded the burden on Gaza strawberry farmers during the current season.
On Dec. 24, 2013, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon ordered the closure of Kerem Shalom crossing, suspending the scheduled export of sixteen tons of strawberries to western Europe on the 25th and 26th of the month, the Israeli NGO Gisha, Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, reported.
Asked about his most recent exported share of strawberries, Khatib said "(the Israelis) opened the crossing, but it didn't sell at a good export price," referring to the delayed reaping of his crop due to the four-day-long storm.
Khatib wondered indignantly "why Israel is not allowing Gaza's cheap strawberries into the West Bank," arguing that "a kilogram of Gaza strawberries is exported at 15 Shekels ($4.30), while Israel is selling it to the West Bank at 40 shekels ($11.48)."
Strawberry production has been on the decline since Israel imposed the blockade on the Gaza Strip in 2007 and the consecutive ban on Gaza exports.
Mr. Saqa said that 1500 tons of strawberry were being exported to Europe before the siege, but these figures have already dropped to 400-500.
Despite Israel's easing on export restrictions from Gaza, allowing an average of two trucks per day to exit Gaza through the Kerem Shalom crossing in December 2010, they have not resulted in a recovery of strawberry production.
Strawberry farmers only occupy between 100 and 120 acres of land for planting in the Gaza Strip, compared to some 618 acres prior to 2007. Mr. Saqa confirmed the hardships, pointing to the high strawberry production costs as yet another major factor behind Gaza farmers' disinterest in growing strawberries.
The past three years were the worst for Rafeeq Abu Samra, who has been growing strawberry for 22 years.
Israel's November 2012 military operation, which also coincided with harvest season, frequent border closures, and most recently the extreme storm have caused him a great loss, he explained with little hope.
"The cold damaged 70-80 kilos of strawberry everyday, an amount four-fold the medium-quality average, which mostly goes for local consumption," Abu Samra said, who along with three farmers plants on 3.5 acres of land, of which ten are rented, and employs seven workers who are hired seasonally.
The semi-absence of the smuggling tunnel trade in recent months has added to increasing the price of strawberry production in the blockaded Gaza Strip.
"A dunum -- nearly 0.25 acre -- of strawberry costs me $3500 per annum," he said.
"After the tunnels were destroyed, we had had to resort to Israel-imported seedlings, insecticides, and fertilizers instead of Egypt-smuggled ones. All of that, coupled with labor and watering costs, was a blow to my business."
"Growing strawberries is no longer a business for saving; it barely earns a living enough for my family and for the farmers working with me," Abu Samra added.
"Strawberries are an export fruit that Gaza farmers grow with care," al-Saqa said, noting that "it doesn’t pay off if farmers are unable to export, as the local price of strawberry per ton amounts to $1000, or two-third less than the export price.”
Direblah does not expect better conditions for the strawberry crop in the years to come, blaming Israel's continuing export restrictions.
"It's a political issue. They don't want our strawberries -- the best in the world -- to go beyond Gaza."
Abdulrahman Murad submitted this article to Ma'an News Agency