WASHINGTON— The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has started distributing thousands of almond tree plants to Palestinian farmers in the Gaza strip whose lands along the border with Israel have been ravaged by successive wars.
The Red Cross began the distribution of trees Wednesday in an effort to help farmers rebuild orchards destroyed in fighting with Israel.
"We are distributing 4,000 almond trees of five different varieties to a lot of farmers in this area," said Mamadou Sow, head of the ICRC sub-delegation for Gaza.
Fifty years ago, agriculture accounted for more than half of the Palestinian gross domestic product. After decades of fighting, it now represents about 5 percent. Much of the farming land along the border with Israel is inaccessible due to constant shelling. But some farmers say they are forced to take the risk.
"We are 700 or 800 meters away from the border with Israel. Army patrols are driving along and we hear gunshots from the security towers. They are shooting during training, so every day we hear gunshots. We cultivate our lands here and we feel like our lives are in danger," said Marwane Abu Mharreb, a Palestinian farmer.
Gaza's main exports are strawberries, flowers, vegetables and fish. The coastal strip is under an Israeli blockade and allowed only small and irregular shipments of agricultural produce through the Kerem Shalom crossing. When the Palestinian crops are wiped out by explosions and the aftermath of fighting, there is nothing to export and debts accumulate. The Red Cross gift of almond trees is an effort at rebuilding some of the Gaza's agriculture.
"This is a project that consists of giving almond trees to farmers. Many of them have lost their trees during the last wars," said Sow.
Farmers fear that the new trees may be killed by the Israeli defoliant spray used to wilt leaves on trees and shrubs along the border so they cannot be used as cover for the planting of roadside bombs and attacks on Israel. Palestinian farmers say the spray destroys plants on which their animals feed. The Red Cross says it has discussed the spraying with the Israeli military.
Gaza's borders are strictly controlled by Israel and Egypt to prevent the import of arms and military supplies for the strip's Hamas rulers.