Gaza farmers fear Israeli spraying will destroy crops

Farmers at work in Gaza, close to the fence last week. Photo: Gisha

Farmers at work in Gaza, close to the fence last week. Photo: Gisha

January 5, 2017. On Tuesday this week, Palestinian farmers in Gaza reported that Israeli planes sprayed herbicides in the area of the fence that separates the Strip from Israel. The substance was carried by the wind and reached agricultural fields. The area is currently being inspected and the extent of the damage caused to crops is still unknown.

At the very same time, Gisha’s field coordinator was visiting areas close to the fence south of where the spraying took place. He visited fava bean and spinach fields ready for harvest, and met with tense farmers, living in fear that herbicide-spraying planes might destroy their crops just days before they would be ready to bring to market.

The Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture had informed Gaza farmers that it was told Israel would be carrying out ‘seasonal spraying’ around the fence area between December 25 and January 5. Saleh Mohammad a-Najar,  a vegetable grower in the area between Khan Yunis and Deir al-Balah, says he has not slept since the announcement was made. Spraying could destroy his entire crop. His fear is well-substantiated. In October 2014 and December 2015, Israeli spraying reached his fields, destroyed dozens of dunams of crops and caused serious financial losses.

“If it happens again”, a-Najar says, “I might have a heart attack. I’m expecting to pick the spinach and fava beans and sell them within less than two weeks. I owe more than 20,000 shekels to a supplier from whom I buy equipment and other agricultural products. I can sell the crops for 30,000, pay off the debts, and make some profit. If there’s spraying, I’ll go bankrupt”.

Usually, he says, merchants pay for his crops in advance, before the harvest, but now, no one is willing to take the risk because the fava beans and spinach might not survive the week.

Israel’s Ministry of Defense hires private companies to spray from planes as part of “routine security activity”. In a response from September to a Freedom of Information petition (Hebrew) filed by Gisha regarding the harmful spraying practice, the ministry claimed that the spraying is done inside Israel’s territory, rather than in the Strip. Gaza farmers, on the other hand, have been reporting for years about crops that are damaged by the spraying. A-Najar shares that in previous years the planes flew right over the Gaza perimeter fence, and the winds carried the chemical substance up to two kilometers into the Strip. His fields, which are 300 to 800 meters away from the fence, are particularly vulnerable, and he is not the only one. Most farmland that supplies food for the Gaza Strip is located close to the fence.

Israel regularly sends heavy equipment, tanks and soldiers, to raze and clear lands inside the Strip, as it sees fit. Using harmful and inaccurate means such as spraying from the air devastates farmers’ livelihoods and destroys the crops they grow with painstaking effort. The environmental or long and short-term health risks of exposure to the substances is unknown. What’s clear is that undermining Gaza’s economy contradicts the official policy of Israel, at least as stated, and, more than that, is entirely wrong and must be stopped.

If there really is a substantive security need for clearing areas of land inside Israel, decision-makers must find alternatives that don’t harm residents of Gaza and violate their rights.