On May 9, U.S. Consul General in Jerusalem Donald A. Blome hosted “Grown in Gaza”, an event bringing together policy-makers, Palestinian farmers, and journalists to highlight the potential of Gaza’s agricultural sector. He also announced the 5-year, $50 million Envision Gazan 2020 USAID program. Pictures of the event. Below are his remarks.
My wife Debbie and I are very glad to welcome you all to our home today. Thank you for coming to celebrate Palestinian agriculture in Gaza. I want to offer my sincere thanks to our Palestinian exporters from Gaza: Mounir Abu Hasira, Jamal Abu Naja, and Abdel Raouf Abu Safr for the beautiful produce and seafood they provided. I would also like to offer a special thank you to Uri Madar from the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture for his work to facilitate the transfer of goods out of Gaza. I am also glad to welcome Dr. Kheirieh Rassas.
There are some very special aspects of the evening to which I would like to draw your attention. All of the produce and seafood you see before you, that you are eating right now, the fruit in the specialty juices – all of it was produced in Gaza. I don’t think anyone in Jerusalem has been able to say that for the last 10 years. One of Gaza’s most prominent chefs, Jamal Sobeh, graciously volunteered his time to partner with our Chef, Nina Eliahu, to prepare tonight’s food – every dish a Gaza specialty or inspired by Gaza culinary traditions. I would also invite you to walk over and see the photo exhibition from a very well-known Gaza photojournalist, Wissam Nasser, who has been regularly featured in the New York Times. I found these photographs to be a moving reminder of the human stories in Gaza, a place often stereotyped or simplified in popular depictions.
Normally, at events like these, I talk about U.S. policies and programs. Tonight, I want to do something a little different. I want to focus on these vegetables [point to basket of vegetables] and the farmers that produced them. Several of these farmers are with us here tonight. In fact, I believe these vegetables came from the farm of Abdel Raouf Safar and Jamal Abu Naja. Munir Abu Hasira provided the delicious fresh seafood catch you are savoring tonight. And Jawdat Al Khoudary provided the beautiful plants from his cactus farm to decorate our tables. From planting the seed to exporting the crop, these producers face multiple and unique challenges. Access to water and land in one of the most densely populated regions of the world is a formidable challenge but even after that, Gazan farmers must contend with some of the highest shipping costs in the world, long wait times for their produce under the blazing sun, and phytosanitary and quality standards enforced by multiple entities. A Gazan farmer once told me that it cost him more to ship strawberries to Ramallah than to Europe.
This attractive and delicious produce provides a concrete example of the potential of Gaza agriculture but also the significant challenges.
In addition to widespread destruction of homes and factories, the 2014 conflict did enormous damage to the agricultural sector in Gaza—the backbone of the Gaza economy. Twenty six thousand farmers lost their livelihoods; the conflict left over 550 million dollars in damages and destroyed almost 800 water wells.
At a time when violent extremists in this region are capitalizing on a vacuum of leadership, governance, and hope, in Gaza we need a better vision for the future. A part of that picture is sustainable economic growth and employment. That includes reinvigorating Gaza’s agriculture and food sector, and re-establishing strong commercial links with the West Bank, with Israel, the West Bank, and with the global economy. The agriculture sector is a powerful example of how cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and the Government of Israel can benefit Palestinians in Gaza and provide real economic possibilities in the midst of hardship. Investing in Gaza’s economic future will not empower extremist groups. In fact, a credible vision for a future with dignity is the antidote to extremism. However, we are all aware of the persistent, daunting development challenges in Gaza, challenges which demand concerted action from all of us.
First, there is a need to balance the legitimate security needs of the Government of Israel with the necessity of building Gaza’s economy. In 2015, the Government of Israel facilitated Gaza agricultural sales to the West Bank and a limited opening to Israel. The recent expansion of fishing limits in Gaza should benefit hundreds of Palestinian fishermen. We welcome these recent steps to allow trade from Gaza. The international community is prepared to help expand on this, through the AHLC and the Office of the Quartet, and there is much more the PA and the Government of Israel can do together.
The Palestinian Authority Ministry of Agriculture, which is represented here tonight, has been instrumental in coordinating donor support for reconstructing thousands of greenhouses in Gaza and rehabilitating damaged farm land. There is continuous contact between the Palestinian and Israeli Ministries of Agriculture to facilitate trade at the crossing and address phytosanitary concerns. These have been notable areas of success.
Many of our friends in the international community have been active in supporting Gaza agriculture. The Government of the Netherlands, represented by Wijnand Marchal tonight, has been investing in Gaza agriculture since 2010, helping farmers meet Global Gap international export standards and improving crossing infrastructure to facilitate swift and efficient transport of perishable goods from Gaza.
The U.S. government is also working to improve the lives and livelihoods of Gaza farmers and exporters. Last year, USAID’s COMPETE initiative launched in Gaza with a focus on developing the high-value crop sector. I am proud to see so many farmers and partners who have worked with us on this endeavor.
If the West Bank COMPETE program is any example, the Gaza agricultural sector could also grow exponentially. Thanks to COMPETE, agriculture exports from the West Bank grew by 24 million dollar from 2013 to 2014. Palestinian firms signed 33 contracts with international buyers from 2012 to 2014, infusing 34 million dollars into the Palestinian economy. This initiative created over a thousand new jobs, and trained or invested in over 2,000 farmers in the same period.
We all know more needs to be done in Gaza. That is why we are hosting this event tonight. More than that, that is why, today, the United States government is proud to announce a new 50 million dollar program called Envision Gaza 2020. This program will provide urgent humanitarian support, job creation, and capacity building – markedly expanding our Gaza assistance efforts. In Gaza we need to offer a better vision for the future, and this program aims to do just that. It reinforces the continued support of the American people to the Palestinian people.
Everyone here tonight has been focused on solutions; solutions on how to grow produce in one of the most densely populated areas in the world, solutions on how to lower shipping costs or secure access to markets, solutions on how to make the world’s most delicious Sayad’eya – thanks for that Jamal. As you move around the event tonight, I invite you to look at the photo exhibition, taste the delicious Gazan cuisine, listen to the music, and, before you leave, fill up a bag of Gaza produce and take it home with you.