Jerusalem - Unlike the normally cautious rhetoric by a Palestinian when talking about his relationship with an Israeli party, Muhammad Hamlawi, coordinator of the European Standards Project at the Palestine Trade Centre (Paltrade) in Gaza speaks with great excitement about the relationship between his institution and the Israel-Palestine Centre for Research and Information (IPCRI), an Arab-Israeli non-governmental centre specialized in research and training. The reason behind this is the transformation that the agricultural sector in Gaza is witnessing as a result of a joint project started last year between the two institutions.
A number of cases of non-official cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis had been recorded after the Oslo agreement in 1993, but most of them ended with the start of the intifada in September 2000.
The relationship between Paltrade and IPCRI has resulted in export-oriented agriculture in the Gaza Strip entering a new era never before witnessed in this region. It started with a training project funded by ACDI-VOCA, a private, American-based nongovernmental organization, and carried out by IPCRI, aimed at training agricultural engineers and pioneering farmers in Gaza on implementing European standards in agricultural production. As a result, 90% of strawberry and cherry tomato growers in the strip, who are implementing these standards, now enjoy the benefits of exportation to European Union countries, thus raising prices of their produce substantially, reaching an additional 45 cents per kilogram.
Hillel Adiri, IPCRI agriculture expert, states that the idea of cooperation emerged after the EU requested agricultural products exporters to comply with modern export standards when shipping to EU countries.
He adds that IPCRI sees this project as one of the most important means for supporting peace and cooperation between the Palestinian and Israeli peoples. "We at IPCRI believe that economic stability is key to political stability. Peoples divided by wars are united by economic cooperation," states Hillel.
Amid Al Masri, Director of the Development and Promotion of Agricultural Trade Project at Paltrade, agrees with Hillel, pointing out that IPCRI today plays an important logistical role in assisting the Palestinian agricultural sector in their interaction with the Israeli authorities, which have imposed stringent restrictions on the Palestinian people's movement over the past four and a half years.
Al Masri mentioned that the training sessions included office and field training as well as field trips to model and other farms of the famous Vulcani Agricultural Research Institute in Rishon LeTzion, Israel. They also included designing a special computer program to implement European standards in agricultural products.
European standards for agricultural imports include 15 items related to various production stages, including land history, planting, irrigation, types and quantities of agricultural insecticides and chemicals, methods of harvesting and packaging, facilities at farms (including toilets and dining rooms for workers, lighting, and windows), and others.
Hamlawi says: "European standards are very stringent, and reach the level of imposing conditions on harvest workers such as clipping their nails, eating their meals far from the produce, using plastic windows and lamps on the farm and others."
Prior to export, the produce is inspected by a European agricultural specialist, who also inspects farm facilities, levels of chemicals in the produce, and other criteria, and decides, based on that, whether to grant or withhold a compliance-with-standards certificate.
The success of the cooperation experience between IPCRI and Paltrade in developing the production of strawberries and cherry tomatoes in Gaza has opened the way for repeating it with other crops.
Al Masri says, "The results of this experience have been tremendous, and if the necessary support for funding new projects is made available, it can be replicated in other export products such as cut-flowers, for example, of which 50 million flowers are exported from the strip annually." Al Masri points out the need for additional funding amounting to $600,000 to complete farmer training programs and establish export infrastructure according to European standards.
Al Masri also notes: "Agriculture in Israel is the most advanced among the countries of the region, and Palestinians have a chance to benefit from it."
In all events, Israel, for Paltrade is the first resource for training Palestinian specialists.
Hamlawi says that, "Politics aside, Israeli agricultural expertise is an important source for developing agriculture in Palestine. In addition to being the most advanced, it is also the closest. If an institution like IPCRI is available to provide permits for our teams to enter Israel and reach research and training institutions, this will be very important for us."
* Mohammad Daraghmeh is a Palestinian political author and analyst.
Source: The Common Ground News Service, July 1, 2005.
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