Geopolitics

Gaza, What Remains Ten Years After Israeli Settlers Left

A decade after Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, many sites have been reduced to ruins. Others are now symbols of Hamas' mission to build a new state.

A beach in Gaza
A beach in Gaza
Gus
Maurizio Molinari

DEIR AL-BALAH â€"

Universities, military bases, theme parks and seaside bars lie beside piles of rubble and abandoned checkpoints. A decade after Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, what remains of the former settlements has assumed a new identity as Hamas seeks to transform the territory into a functioning state.

At the entrance of what used to be the Jewish settlement of Netzarim, a green sign bearing the logo of the Palestinian Authority reads "Welcome to the Beautiful Free Land." Nothing is left of the settlement that used to exist here: today, Islamic Jihad's black flags billow over the settlers' deserted farms.

Houses and buildings on Gaza's central ridges were razed to the ground to make way for the hospital of the Islamic University of Gaza, financed by Turkey. Not far from the hospital, schoolchildren can be seen arriving by bus at a small theme park that includes a big colorful Ferris wheel.

"I'm especially happy seeing these children play where the occupiers used to live," says Ahmed, the park's manager.

To find physical traces of the Israeli occupation â€" which lasted from 1967 to 2005 â€" you must go to the intersection with Salah al-Din Road, an area frequently hit by bombings during the Intifadas, or Palestinian rebellions, of the late 1980s and early 2000s. Across the road from a onetime Israeli military base that's become a scrapyard, a Hamas surveillance post controls traffic.

Bases and Training Camps

The coastal highway begins at what once was Netzarim and continues southward, passing through Deir al-Balah and terminating at another former Jewish settlement, Gush Katif. Prior to the 2005 unilateral withdrawal ordered by then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, it housed most of the 5,000 Israelis who lived in the settlements scattered over 40% of Gaza's area. Israeli leaders had decided that the military occupation wasn't worth the cost for the sake of so few, mostly ultra Orthodox setters.

Near the wide stretch of beach that the settlers once proudly called "Palm Beach," a so-called "Hamas Riviera" has taken shape, dotted with small bars and restaurants with exotic sounding names and colorful curtains, inviting visitors to dine with a view of the Mediterranean Sea.

Mohamed, 24, a waiter at a local restaurant, recalls the moment "as if it were yesterday" when the checkpoints suddenly disappeared and Palestinians were allowed to enter. "We had never seen anything like it, such a large beach, because until then only the Israelis could enter," he recalls. "It was like entering heaven."

The Deir al-Balah beach, as it's called today, is flanked by several military training camps for Gaza's various militias: not only Hamas, but also the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC).

Each militia's camp is demarcated by the colors of its own flag, each camp billowing columns of smoke high into the air. With Hamas militants driving around on large motorcycles and policemen monitoring the intersections, the former checkpoint appears to be a military base until you notice the nearby theme park.

"Asda City," or Echo City, rises on the former settlement of Ganei Tal and resembles a miniature Disneyland. "After the withdrawal we tried to turn it into a large film set, but the only movie filmed here was Emad Akel, a movie about a hero of the resistance against the Israelis, so we decided to change tack and make a theme park for children instead," says the manager Saed Abalder, 32.

The result is an aquatic park surrounded by carousels, little trains, and even a zoo whose major attraction is a lion. "We brought him in two years ago through the tunnels from Egypt," explains Abalder. "Back then he was so small he could fit into a box."

Boasting deer, ostriches, and baboons, Asda City's zoo replaced the one located in the former Jewish settlement of Netzer Hazani, of which nothing remains. The locals in Deir al-Balah tell conflicting accounts of the settlement's demise. Some recall the Israelis destroying everything before they left, while others remember the withdrawal as a victory for the resistance movement that wanted to rid the town of any sign of the occupation.

Religious Symbols

There is no such dispute over who destroyed the great synagogue of Neve Dekalim, the largest of the settlements in Gaza. It was a powerful symbol because the settlers who opposed the withdrawal occupied the synagogue, refusing to leave and confronting the Israeli soldiers tasked with the operation. When the Palestinians razed it, they left the ruins behind, clearly visible from the main road, as a testament to their determination to destroy the building.

There is no trace left of any of the other Israeli-built synagogues in Gaza, but the Palestinians left intact a basketball arena built by the settlers, still used today by locals. Similarly unscathed is the old administrative building of the Council of Neve Dekalim, its offices first used by the Palestinian Authority and then Hamas after its rise to power in Gaza in 2007. It now forms part of the campus of Al Aqsa University, which with its 28,000 students is the largest university in southern Gaza.

"We tell every student that this is where the occupiers used to live, and this is where we want to build a life for Palestinians," says Neamat Shaban Alwan, the university's vice president. "We are moderates, not extremists, and we want peace with everyone including our former enemies."

In his office hangs a map of Palestine depicting its territory as stretching from the Mediterranean to the River Jordan, with no sign of Israel, and the office's atrium is adorned with a panoramic photo of Jerusalem's old city. Opposite the university's administrative office is the old hospital of Neve Dekalim, which now hosts classes for female students, who are kept apart from their male classmates. Many of them dress conservatively with niqabs and chadors, the full length Islamic veil and cloak, though they feature a variety of colors and styles. There's even a brand new mosque, surrounded by stalls that have developed into a small souk, or open-air marketplace.

"It's still difficult to rebuild Gaza because every once in a while there's a war that sets the clock back," laments Shaban, who pulls out a list of 45 students killed in last summer's war with Israel.

But these days in Gaza a sense of cautious optimism prevails, fueled by rumors of secret negotiations between Israel and Hamas. The possibility of talks have become the topic of the day in Gaza's markets, with locals noting the mass distribution of locally produced license plates featuring the Palestinian flag.

The plates, along with the new "arrivals" and "departures" signs at the port, are seen as tangible signs of Hamas' desire to transform Gaza into a real state. And some dare to wonder if, 10 years after the withdrawal of the Israeli army, an even more momentous change is on its way.

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At the Mango Festival held in Aswan, Egypt

Nada Arafat

ISMAILIA – Every year during the month of July, crowds gather in the mango farms of Ismailia, in northeastern Egypt, to pick the delectable summer fruit during its relatively short harvest season. But this year, as a result of erratic weather patterns throughout March and April, the usual bountiful mango harvest was severely affected with farmers witnessing a precipitous drop in yield. Some 300,000 farms saw an 80% decrease in productivity, leading to a supply shortage in the market and a corresponding 40% increase in the price of mangoes.


The effects of these climate fluctuations could have been mitigated by farmers, yet according to experts who spoke to Mada Masr, the agriculture minister failed to play a role in raising awareness among farmers and in providing agricultural guidance services.

Heatwaves kill crops

Mangoes are highly sensitive to changes in temperature. For germination to occur, the ideal temperature should be between 10 °C at night and 28 °C during the day, according to agricultural consultants. In Egypt, this weather pattern usually occurs in February. Mango trees then flower and the flowers turn into fruits that take 40 days to grow and be ready for harvest, according to Karam Suleiman, an agricultural engineer.

This year, however, according to mango farmers in Ismailia who spoke to Mada Masr, the beginning of the winter farming season experienced a sudden heatwave followed by another heatwave at the end of March. In both March and April, the temperature dipped to as low as 5 °C at night and as high as 25 °C during the day. Due to these erratic weather fluctuations, the mango flowers that develop into fruit fell before they could mature.

The typical average mango yield from one feddan (approx 1.03 acres or 0.40 hectares) ranges between 6 to 8 tons. This year however, the yield per feddan averaged between just 1 to 2 tons, according to several sources.

Frozen mango suppliers multiply purchases

A farm owner in Al-Tal al-Kebir on the Ismailia Desert Road, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, said that his farm produced approximately 35 tons of mangoes last year, whereas this year his yield did not exceed 4 tons. He added that many farmers in the surrounding area, which is famous for mango cultivation, experienced the same steep declines in yield.

The limited mango yield and the subsequent hike in prices has also prompted frozen mango suppliers to multiply their purchases from farms in order to capitalize and sell them next year at an even higher price, according to Ali Saqr, an agricultural engineer in a fruit export company, along with a number of other farm owners who spoke to Mada Masr. Mangos can stay frozen for up to two years.

Khaled Eweis, who buys mangoes and stores them in rented freezers then later sells the frozen mangoes to juice and dessert shops, explained to Mada Masr that juice shops usually use the Zebdia variety of mangoes, whereas dessert shops use Keitt mangoes. The latter is expected to be priced at 25 Egyptian pounds ($1.5) this year after having been sold for half the price at the same time last year.

Last year, Eweis bought Zebdia mangoes for 10–12 Egyptian pounds ($0.6–$0.7) per kilo then resold them for 16 ($1) after freezing them. This year, the Zebdia prices ranged from 17–21 ($1–$1.30) per kilo, and Eweis expects that the price after freezing will reach as high as 25 ($1.5).

Photo of an Egyptian man shouldering a basket full of mangoes

The typical average mango yield from one feddan (approx 1.03 acres) ranges between 6 to 8 tons

Xinhua/ZUMA

Threat to water security

This is not the first time that mango production has been hit hard as a result of fluctuating weather patterns. A similar crisis in the mango harvest took place in 2018, and other crops, such as olives, potatoes, wheat, rice and cotton, have also been adversely affected over the last few years, according to Mohamed Fahem, the head of the government Climate Change Information Center. And human-induced changes to global weather patterns as a result of climate change point to increased agricultural challenges in the future.

The deadly heat waves, fires, hurricanes and other extreme weather events that have dominated headlines in recent years will only become more frequent in the coming decades, according to a United Nations report on climate change released in August. In its sixth assessment report, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change called human-induced changes to global climate systems "unprecedented." While the report calls for drastic cuts to the global emission of greenhouse gases, much of the effects of climate change are already locked in for decades to come.

Among the areas most vulnerable to climate change is agriculture. A 2018 report titled Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Changes in Egypt found that climate change can have drastic effects on agriculture through changes in temperature, rainfall, CO2 levels and solar radiation. Meanwhile, a 2020 European Union report also found that climate change will pose a threat to global food production in the medium to long-term through projected changes in daily temperature, precipitation, wind, relative humidity and global radiation.

According to various studies, climate change gradually reduces the duration of spring, autumn and winter, which in turn affects the crops that are cultivated during those seasons. In Egypt in particular, the country's agricultural crop map will likely change as a result of a prolonged summer season, according to a study by former Agriculture Minister Ayman Abou Hadid, published in 2010 when he was heading the Center for Agricultural Studies. The study predicted that grain cultivation will gradually move north from Upper Egypt due to increases in winter temperatures, though it did not give a projected timeframe.

Cold and heat waves

Climate change also increases salinity levels in soil due to rising sea levels, which in turn renders the soil only suitable for crops that can handle high salinity yet still require intensive irrigation to mitigate the salinity levels. At the same time, Egypt is currently facing a threat to its water security due to the changes in rain patterns and droughts as well as the potential effects of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

According to Fahim, the increased cold and heat waves Egypt has experienced has led to the emergence of new, mutated varieties of pests and fungal diseases that are resistant to chemicals. For example, in 2018, aphids and whiteflies spread due to the shortened winter season, and the accumulation of these pests led to huge losses in potato and cotton yields. Meanwhile, palm trees were harmed due to the appearance of red palm weevils.

How farmers counter mango losses

The severe losses in the 2021 mango yield were hard to avoid, but is there a way to counter them?

Karam Suleiman, an agricultural engineer, believes that better methods of agriculture, irrigation and fertilization, along with raising awareness among farmers about the dangers of climate change and how to monitor weather fluctuations could succeed in mitigating such outcomes.

However, Egypt appears currently incapable of providing sufficient safety networks to farmers in order to enable them to confront the effects of climate change.

An example of this is apparent in the failure to enforce mechanisms for warning farmers about potential difficulties in upcoming farming seasons. In June, a report by the Center for Agricultural Studies warned about a decline of as much as 85% in the productivity of farms in Ismailia, where mangoes are mainly cultivated, as well as farms in Sharqiya, Suez and Beheira, due to climate change. However, this report only reached about 13 farmers and owners of mango farms, according to agricultural sources who spoke to Mada Masr.

Ahmed Asal, a mango farmer in Qantara in Ismailia, told Mada Masr that there has been no guidance from authorities in helping farmers understand climate change and how to respond to it. "No one told us what to do and we never received any compensation for our losses," Asal said.

Photo of a hand picking a mango from the tree in Egypt

Mangoes are highly sensitive to changes in temperature

Ahmed Gomaa/Xinhua/ZUMA

Agriculture engineers must become climate engineers

Agricultural guidance is a service offered by the Agriculture Ministry to raise awareness and educate farmers about all aspects of farming. The service is usually provided through agricultural engineers who are based in the agricultural cooperatives that exist in every city and town.

Fahim, the head of the Climate Change Information Center, works to play a similar role through his Facebook page and, at times, on various TV channels and newspapers, by raising awareness about weather fluctuations and their effects on agriculture. However, his insights do not have a wide enough audience, particularly at a time when the agricultural guidance is dwindling despite the opening of the Agricultural Guidance Center in Qantara earlier this year under the auspices of the Agriculture Ministry.

"Agricultural guidance has been doing a good job lately, but only in the media, not on the ground," said Alaa Khairy,* an engineer at the Central Laboratory for Climate Change. "If they were really working on the ground, farmers would not have lost as much as they did."

More important crops like wheat will be next

What exacerbates the crisis is that those who are harmed the most are small farmers — those who have between 10 to 20 feddans of land — who cannot afford to take preemptive precautionary measures to mitigate erratic weather patterns nor hire experts who can help them make better decisions about how to handle sudden climate fluctuations. Those farmers also cannot afford to provide covers for their fruits during hot seasons, which is one way to prevent crop damage that is quite costly.

This year's crisis is expected to be repeated in the coming years due to the rapid consequences and effects of climate change on global food security. Aside from mangoes, the effects of climate change are projected to affect far more important crops, such as wheat, with reports showing global wheat crop losses due to heat and drought, a particularly worrisome development for Egypt — the largest importer of wheat in the world.

"In the coming period, agricultural engineers must become climate engineers as well," Suleiman said.

*Pseudonym

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