On Gaza's border, potato farmers hope to lay groundwork for peace

“I bless the millions of small farmers everywhere that they may learn to regroup to defend their interests and innovate intelligently. I bless those in government responsible for enacting laws and regulations of all sorts that they may be inspired by divine wisdom rather than narrow interests.” From a blessing by Pierre Pradervand

Even as tensions rise along the Gaza-Israel frontier, potato farmers from both sides are discussing ways to bolster the Palestinians' vital agriculture sector.

Eid Siyam is a 38-year old resident of the Gaza City neighborhood of Tuffah. Many of his neighbors were left homeless or killed in Israel’s bitter 2014 war with Hamas. Yankele Cohen is an 81-year-old founding member of Kibbutz Nahal Oz, a community now  nearly empty after grenades  from Gaza killed a 4-year-old in the yard of his family’s home. They live less than two miles apart across fields of fertile earth, but they have been separated by years of war and military blockades.

Both farmers saw their fields ripped up during the fighting. But a few weeks ago, just a few hundred feet from the opening of a cross-border tunnel used by Hamas fighters to ambush and kill Israeli soldiers, the two were trudging together through rows of crops at Nahal Oz, digging up potatoes from the cool, moist soil. Instead of politics, the conversation focused on the details of potato farming: irrigation, disease, seeding techniques, and crop yields.

It’s a rare example of cross-border agricultural cooperation in a region that has suffered from three wars since 2008 and where fears of a new outbreak of fighting persist.  Mr. Siyam is one of a handful of Gaza potato farmers who in the last half year have been crossing into Israel to consult with Mr. Cohen on how to improve growing techniques, which new strains to experiment with, and how to build Gaza’s first French fry factory.

The connection between the Palestinian farmers and Cohen, an international expert nicknamed “Mr. Potato” in Israel, was made through the United Nations Food Agriculture Organization and the Israeli Defense Ministry’s liaison office to Gaza.

Cohen has advised growers in Egypt, Kazakhstan, and China, but until last year had never worked with the Palestinians living just across the border.  “People understand that if there’s positive activity , and can earn a living, it can only help. There is 50 percent unemployment over there.” says Cohen.  After a year of quiet, the border area has again become tense: dozens of Gazans staged demonstrations there in October 2015 and tried to cross into Israel; Hamas recently boasted of digging new cross-border tunnels under the frontier, and the Israeli army keeps a close watch for Palestinian infiltrators

Agriculture is a key component of the economy for both Gaza and Israel, and it also plays a role in the conflict. For 1.8 million Gazans, it’s one of the leading sectors of an economy hemmed in by blockades imposed by Israel and Egypt. Some 19,000 households rely on farming. Cross-border cooperation between merchants or in crop cultivation has been almost non-existent since Hamas took over the territory.

“This is a good opportunity to learn about modern growing technology,” says Mohammed Hassan, a Gaza agriculture expert who works for international aid agencies and was visiting Nahal Oz with Siyam. “It will help the farmers, most of whom live under the poverty line.” According to the UN, the 2014 fighting cost Gaza’s agriculture sector an estimated $500 million in damage and 43 percent of its production capacity.

Siyam says he planted his fields this month with the strains suggested by Cohen, and hopes the veteran agronomist can help get a French fry production line built. “We hope to finish all the problems between us, God willing. It’s not good for either side,” he says. “God willing, it will be a good season.”

After the tour of the fields, the Gazans gathered with Cohen and a kibbutz colleague in a conference room. Over Turkish coffee, both sides expressed hope that one day the border would open up.

For the full February 22, 2016  article by  Joshua Mitnick, please visit http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2016/0222/On-Gaza-s-border-potato-farmers-hope-to-lay-groundwork-for-peace?cmpid=gigya-mail

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