Inside the struggle of farmers and industrial workers in Gaza as Palestinians face exposure to environmental racism under Israeli blockade.

Gaza's farmers and clothing workers sectors struggle under Israeli blockade

Above: A farmer, hired by Abu Mohammad Alzaeem, from the southern Gaza Strip, taking care of grapes beneath a plastic net that is designed to protect the crop this summer. Photos by the author.

Gaza's economy and ecology under siege.

Ahed Salman is a 39-year-old farmer. He plants and harvests watermelons on his one acre farm in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahya, which is a mere 700 meters away from the Israel-Gaza border. Watermelon is a main summer crop, and one that many farmers turn to during these months.

There are about 45,000 acres of farmland throughout the Gaza Strip's 360 square kilometers. The land produces various crops like citrus, olives, grapes, vegetables, dates and, most recently, watermelons.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Gaza is self-sufficient in most of these crops, with only certain fruits, such as bananas and apples, being imported from outside Gaza via Israel-controlled commercial crossings.

But Ahed says he is struggling to make ends meet.

"For the time being, we could barely get by," he says. "There is no good market. Running costs are way bigger than profits. We farmers have lost more than we have won over the past five years. For example, we used to produce strawberries, but since restrictions have been imposed on exports, we turned now to producing watermelon."

Inside the struggle of farmers and industrial workers in Gaza as Palestinians face exposure to environmental racism under Israeli blockade.
Ahed Salman touching a watermelon at his farm land in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahya.

Ahed's economic struggles are not new to the Palestinian residents of Gaza. The Gaza Strip is home to more than 2.2 million residents and has been under an Israeli siege since 2007. The blockade has caused the "near collapse of the regional Gaza economy," according to a 2020 United Nations report. Israel can block all kinds of supplies and raw materials from Gaza if they could be used in military activities, making raw materials difficult to obtain. 

This has impacted farmers like Ahed as well as industrial workers in Gaza. Agricultural and industrial sectors once made up much larger proportions of Gaza's economy. They have both been hit hard by the past 16 years of an Israel-imposed siege.

During this blockade, farmers like Ahed have to continue carrying out their work while navigating intermittent Israeli military attacks. Since 2008, Israel has carried out four major military attacks on Gaza. The latest of these was in May 2021 and compromised hundreds of points of infrastructure, either partially or completely.

"One of the main challenges that we have been encountering, has been the unrest in the region," says Ahed. "For example, in May 2021, I had this same crop. By then, there was an Israeli war. I remember that I had to risk my life in order to come over for 30 minutes to irrigate my watermelons. I recall very well that one day during that war, I saw and heard tank shells landing just nearby."

He says he hopes that the situation will improve soon, so that he and his family of 10 will be able to get by.

Lack of

Power shortages have been a major problem for the entire population of Gaza. In 2006, Israel's attack on the Gaza Strip caused the enclave's main power plant to shut down. It now meets less than 40 percent of Gaza's electrical demand, and power outages of six to eight hours occur daily.

Farmers and workers have had to work around this. Many have invested in alternative sources of energy, like solar power.  

In the northern Gaza Strip, another farmer, Abdelkarim Wahdan, has started generating 20 kilowatts of solar power to irrigate his large 30-acre farm. The solar panels installed in Abdelkarim's farm are batteryless and save him about US$100 every time he irrigates his land.

"When Israel attacks Gaza, I can't travel to my farm. Two years ago, in 2021, 10.5 crates of watermelons were destroyed because I wasn't able to irrigate my fruits for 11 consecutive days," says Abdelkarim.

Abdelkarim shared that when Israel bombed Gaza for 50 days during Operation Protective Edge in 2014, he had to move most of his crops out of the farm as Israeli tanks bulldozed his crops and uprooted his land.

Inside the struggle of farmers and industrial workers in Gaza as Palestinians face exposure to environmental racism under Israeli blockade.
Abelkareem Wahdan standing near his solar panels at his farmland in northern Beit Hanoun town.


The local Gaza government is trying to boost economic development with the help of outside actors.

"We're in continuous contact with various local and international NGOs in the Gaza Strip, such as the European Union, Food and Agriculture Organization, Oxfam, and several others," says Adham Al-Basyouni, a media official with the Gaza-based agricultural ministry. "Our collaboration has meant we have been able to assist vulnerable farmers and ensure their most essential needs are met."

Basyouni added that over the past few months, about 90 tons of potatoes produced in Gaza have been exported to the Arab Gulf state of Kuwait. About 3,000 tons of Gazan potatoes are exported annually, with a significant amount shipped to Kuwait in the past. 

"In fact, the export of that quantity was made possible following intensive efforts of coordination. We hope that more crops could be exported to other countries, as Gaza's agricultural products are competitive and abundant, in spite of unbelievable challenges."

One farmer who has benefited from government and NGO-funded projects is Abu Mohammad Alza'eem. He grows grapes in the southern part of the Gaza Strip, mainly in the eastern border village of Alfokhari.

Abu Mohammad said that with the help of the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC), his one-acre grape farm is now covered with plastic nets that prevent overexposure to the sun and protect against mosquitos.

"The quality of my grapes has improved," Abu Mohammad says, beaming. "Before the nets, I used to lose around 50 percent of my crops. But now, that number is far less. I am hoping that this summer, I will be able to make some good business out of my grape production."

Gaza's garment industry also struggles

As of 2023, Gaza's unemployment rate is over 40 percent.

"Extremely unfortunately, long years of siege, wars, destruction, negligence, and lack of both compensation and protection policies for the industrial and agricultural sectors have all led to a great deal of stagnation and decline of those sectors," says Gaza-based economic expert Mohammad Abu Jayab. "If the sectors in question are not revived and protected by the government, the unemployment crisis will not be solved." 

Before the blockade, around 160,000 laborers worked in the industrial sector. Now, that number is down to just 30,000 laborers, according to Abu Jayab.

Gaza's clothing manufacturers also continue to face hardships caused by the Israel-imposed closure of Gaza.

Foad Auda (فؤاد عودة), the head of the union of garment industries in Gaza, spoke of his hopes and aspirations for this tiny coastal territory's garment industry.

"Over the past couple years of improved clothing production in Gaza, manufacturers have faced restrictions imposed by Israeli authorities, including demands that exporters place their shipments in pallets that are only 160 centimeters high and that must have an almost 30 centimeters of space between each other. This actually has made costs of shipments and transport through the main Israeli commercial crossing of Gaza, known as Kerem Shalom, quite high."

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Despite these challenges, he says the sector will continue to see growth.

"In fact, currently, we have a total of 8,000 garment workers in Gaza, distributed among dozens of local facilities. We plan to increase this number to 12,000 in the next few years. For the time being, Gaza's garment sector contributes US$20 million annually since 2021. This is because local producers excel at the job for about four decades now." 

Foad Auda said that over the past year, Gaza's factories have managed to produce 90 percent of Gaza's demand for women's long dresses, known as jilbab, which local importers used to bring from nearby Jordan.

"Furthermore, jeans produced by local manufacturers are of high quality. Currently, the local manufacturers produce one million pieces, while another million are imported from Turkey," he adds.

He attributes some of the recent success to outside help and investment in the garment industry.

"The progress has been notable over the past few years, after around 30 factories benefited from a solar panel installment project, sponsored by United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). UNIDO helped install solar panels for those factories, saving the factories hundreds of thousands of US dollars, in return for power generators-produced electricity."

Looking to
the outside
for help

Over the past several months, the General Union of Industries, an umbrella group covering 13 different industrial sectors in Gaza, has been in contact with relevant international bodies over ways to develop industries across the Gaza territory, according to executive director Khadr Shniwra.

"The Quartet Committee for peace in the Middle East, including the EU, United Nations, Russia, and the US, is currently working on a five-year-long plan for development, involving technical and financial support. Also, we aim towards having a green economy in Gaza, where buildings are environment-friendly and raw materials from nature are produced. We are being optimistic," he says.

The European Union has reportedly pledged millions of Euros for the support of industries in the Gaza Strip.

"We have been in partnership with the private sector in Gaza for several years now. Currently, we have a plan to help compensate those industrial facilities that were affected by violence in 2021. In addition, we are working on another project within the same plan, to help promote clean energy for industrial facilities", says Charles Raudot de Châtenay, Head of Section for Economic Development of Water and Energy (EUREP).All economic problems in Gaza are mainly caused by the Israeli blockade. Over the past many years, Palestinians have been calling for an end to the blockade. In 2018, Gaza's population staged protests on border areas, which were met by fierce Israeli army response, leaving hundreds dead and tens of thousands others injured.

Rami Almeghari is a veteran Palestinian freelance English-language journalist & journalism lecturer, based in the Gaza Strip. For over two decades now, Almeghari has worked as a writer and reporter for English-speaking Radios, TVs and websites. He is also an Arabic-language poet.