Interview with Ahmed Sourani, PARC-Gaza
September 13, 2006
By Jennifer Lemire
The political and military crisis in the Middle East is having devastating humanitarian consequences for the people of Gaza in Palestine. Unfortunately, emergency humanitarian responses can also inadvertently have devastating effects on local economies, when imported food aid hurts already struggling local farmers.
I spoke by phone to Ahmed Sourani of the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees (PARC) about the situation in Gaza and PARC’s Farm to Table alternative food aid program.
Everyday we hear news of the impending crisis in Gaza. What is the situation on the ground right now?
Gaza, with a population of 1.5 million people, is like a big jail. It is a very difficult situation and everything and everybody in Gaza is affected. All the borders are closed, tightly restricting the movement of people and goods. The sea is also closed – fishermen have been prohibited from fishing at sea these last few months. They have been forced to only fish from the shores, and using only hand nets.
Frankly, the people here are starving. The majority depend on food handouts from international agencies like UNRWA, the World Food Programme and some local NGOs. And also on PARC’s Farm to Table project.
For the last few years PARC worked with the World Food Programme to distribute food aid. Local farmers came to us and asked, “Why don’t you take our products? You could help us at the same time as you help poor families,” so we launched our Farm to Table program. We pay local farmers and producers a fair price for their goods and provide fresh, healthy food to needy families. It builds up the community, instead of building dependence.
In addition to dealing with the everyday violence of hunger, many people have been killed or wounded during the latest Israeli incursions, since June 25th. About 265 people have been killed, 1,200 wounded, including 60 who have had arms or legs amputated. Sixty-four have been children and 26 were women.
Two thirds of people in Gaza are living below the poverty line on less than $2 a day. Over 1000 dunums of agricultural land have been destroyed these last few months, along the eastern border, near Khan Younis, Rafah and Gaza City, and a thousand beehives belonging to farmers have been destroyed during this period.
The eastern quarter of Gaza City–mainly the Shajaeya and Sha’af agricultural areas–were exposed to repeated Israeli attacks during June and July, 2006.
According to the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture statistics, 460 dunums cultivated with fruit trees were destroyed due to those attacks in that period. According to those statistics, two greenhouses, six dunums of field crops, three poultry farms, six agricultural water wells, and two agricultural water reservoirs and 2500 meters of water pipes were also destroyed.
Gaza is surrounded by a “buffer or security zone-.” The zone is elastic. Depending upon Israel this zone can be 300 meters or one kilometer. The Israelis have indirectly confiscated about 20-25% of Palestinian land for this zone. Farmers do not have the right to reach their land. They want to get to the land to farm it but they can’t get to it because of the shelling. It’s just too dangerous.
Hundreds of families aren’t able to reach their lands. Their right to work their land and to produce food has been confiscated by the Israeli occupation. Ten farmers have been killed along this border.
In the West Bank we hear a lot about the cement Separation Wall. In Gaza we have two walls – the electric wall and the electronic wall. These to walls run parallel to each other and fence Gaza in.
Things are even worse in the refugee camps–there are eight in Gaza–unemployment and poverty rates are higher than in other parts of Gaza, the living conditions are even worse. About 40% of Gaza’s population are refugees.
(In the middle of this phone call Ahmed was told that the electricity was going to go out and that they needed to use the generator. Right now they are getting between 6-7 hours of electricity per day. He said that this was much better – they had been getting 2-3 per day. Rafah has been receiving some electricity from Egypt)
What is the mood of the people?
The people are very frustrated. The people do not have dreams, they do not talk about the future. They don’t have dreams to travel, to go to university. Many students have had to leave school because their parents do not have the money to pay their fees. Even primary schools are affected by the general strike and government officials have not received their salaries in months as a result of the collective punishment against the Palestinian people during this time.
All of this is having a bad psychological impact. Because there is not money to cover basic needs there is always tension and conflict within families. They are human beings who are greatly affected by what is happening.
Are goods and materials getting in an out of Gaza at the moment?
Movement is totally restricted – the borders are closed. These past few days the Israelis have allowed the borders to open for a short time in order to let in the basics we need for survival – mostly food aid and some food stuffs for the shops but that is it. And the borders were only open for a few hours each day, not nearly long enough to get in everything we need. We have not been able to import or export agricultural goods — and this hurts the farmers.
How are families surviving given the near total closure of Gaza?
Around 60% are dependent upon food aid coming in from different sources, like the UN, and the World Food Programme. Most families are eating only very basic foods like falafel and beans, and only the cheapest vegetables.
Families and farmers are struggling. Each box of cucumbers costs 4-5 shekels in the market, but it costs 8-9 shekels to produce. In July and August, in the off season, the price of tomatoes and cucumbers would normally be higher, but now most families cannot afford to them, so the farmers need to sell their goods below cost in order to get rid of them. Farmers are feeding the population of Gaza from their empty pockets.
Also, some families, 5-10%, are dependent on their household gardens. These play a particularly important role during these moments of crisis. Families, extended families and neighbors all benefit. PARC supports some of these household gardening projects. We need to expand this program and to establish new household gardens.
How is PARC’s Food to Table project different from traditional food aid?
PARC is implementing the only project where families receive a basket of fresh food. It is a very good initiative. Care International came to PARC asking about the project and now they have developed a project based on our model.
As I said, the idea came from the farmers. For the past 2-3 years, PARC was working with the World Food Programme to distribute food aid. With no access to markets, the farmers were struggling. They asked why we didn’t take their products?
“You help us at the same time as you help poor families,” they said.
Based on the farmers’ suggestion we designed and implemented the first stage of the project. There have been three stages – each stage has benefited 1,500 families and benefited about 200 farmers and women’s cooperatives. We buy through the farmers associations—we have contracts with the farmers–and this provides them some level of security. Each project has a steering committee that helps implement it. We’ve been trying to target refugee camps with the project because the need there is so great.
Normally, farmers shoulder all of the costs of production, work the land themselves, and then get low prices for their goods. Many don’t make enough money to cover their own production costs, which eventually makes it impossible to keep farming. We solve this problem by buying goods at their real cost from farmers. Then, through a local network of community based organizations and committees, we distribute the food baskets to the community.
One of the problems with traditional food aid (like flour, olive oil, and canned food) is that it is not fresh. PARC baskets include honey, jam, vegetables, eggs, dates, couscous, and cheese. We try to meet international standards of nutrition and at the same time, our project supports farmers–we help them stay on their land and produce and at the same time we help poor families.
What are the challenges PARC faces in implementing this project?
We face many challenges–one of the biggest challenge is the high demand. The number of poor families increases by the day. We’ve also faced some difficulties in reaching some of the more isolated or dangerous areas, due to the shelling. Sometimes we’ve had to use donkey carts to deliver the food baskets.
What has been the response of farmers to the project?
The project has been very well received by both the farmers and the families. It has been discussed in the local papers and people are talking about the good impacts. It encourages local production and offers a fresh food basket for poor families.
Take Khaled Abu Daqua from east Khan Younis, for example. He is the primary breadwinner in a family of 12. He produces white cheese with his family. He was about to stop producing and close his shop because he couldn’t meet his production costs. PARC approached him about this project and contracted with him for large quantities of cheese. This allowed him to continue producing. In the local market one kilo of white cheese would cost 13 shekels, but through this program, PARC pays him 15 shekels.
Another farmer in the program, Akram Zorub from Khan Younis, has a greenhouse. PARC contracted with him to purchase vegetables. In the first stage of the project he was producing low quality vegetables. This was because he didn’t have the money he needed to rehabilitate the soil. In the second stage of the project he produced much better quality and quantity of goods because he had some money to make small improvements to the greenhouse.
And Selma Abu Mustafa, a widow from Khan Younis, is a member of a women’s cooperative that PARC contracted with for zataar, an important herb in Palestinian cooking. She works together with the other women to producte zataar and other dried helps and vegetables, and that way, our basket of food can have flavors that are familiar to the families who receive the baskets, instead of imported rice or other foods that people here don’t typically eat.
What needs to be done to resolve this latest conflict?
This latest crisis, like other crises, is a political conflict, so there needs to be a political solution. Until we can reach an agreement on all of the difficult decisions–about who has the right to determine our future, about borders and control–this conflict will continue.
Things will get worse and worse unless we find a just solution. We hope all of the factions can come together to press for a solution.
We are hoping that soon a door will be opened and give the Palestinians a chance to take a breath.
It is time for all of our friends to raise this issue, to apply more pressure on the Israeli government to open the doors of this big jail and to start moving forward towards a just and real peace.
This is the crucial starting point. We need more pressure, more advocacy, more mutual cooperation from our friends around the world so that together we can tackle all of the short term and long term issues that Palestine is facing.
It is time to think together about our future and real development. Real development is linked with a just solution and a just peace that ensure the rights of Palestinians…to live, to build a state, to have open borders, to put an end to this misery, to stop putting up walls, to dream of our lives, our future.
We don’t need any more walls to remind us that we are living in a prison.