To fight unemployment, these Gaza women are returning to the land

Suha Arraf

+972 Magazine  /  August 5, 2021

Ghaidaa, Aseel, and Nadine were tired of looking for work in Gaza. So they rented a plot of land, started growing vegetables, and became a phenomenon.

When Ghaidaa Qudaih graduated from university, she was one of countless Palestinian woman trying to eke out a living in the grinding poverty that surrounded her in the Gaza Strip. When she discovered how hard it was going to be to find a job, even with a degree in business, she realized she would have to take matters into her own hands.

Qudaih is one of three young Palestinian women from Gaza who helped establish Green Girls, a women-run agricultural project to help fight unemployment and poverty among women in Gaza.

“We wanted to bring the Palestinian back to the land. Many young people are leaving or want to leave the Gaza Strip, and we have this asset, the land,” said Qudaih, who teamed up with Aseel Najjar and Nadine Abu Rok — all of them from the village of Khuza’a near Khan Yunis, to form the collective.

Like Qudaih, neither Najjar nor Abu Rok could not find jobs, despite graduating from universities across Gaza. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise in the face of nearly a decade and a half of Israeli blockade. Israel’s restrictions on movement of both goods and people in and out of the strip have had a critical effect on Gaza’s population. The blockade has left Gaza’s economy in shambles and most of its residents cut off from the world.

The unemployment rate in Gaza stands at 43 percent, with women’s unemployment hovering at around 60 percent. As many as 79 percent of those employed in the private sector earn less than minimum wage.

Neither Qudaih, Najjar, or Abu Rok wanted to sit at home after their studies, so they looked for volunteering options. Qudaih and Najjar have been good friends for 10 years, and they met Abu Rok while volunteering. “The three of us are ambitious women who want to move forward in life,” said Qudaih. “We had a lot of ideas: to open a clothing store, a place where we would cook traditional food, or a shop that would sell handmade goods. But the disadvantages of every project always outweighed the advantages.”

One day, Qudaih recalled, they sat in Najjar’s home when the latter’s father, who is also a farmer, told them: “‘Why don’t you work in agriculture? You’re strong and brave.’ We were excited by the idea.” They then realized they could rent farmland and defer payment until they harvested the produce. They consulted with agricultural engineers and professionals and began looking for land.

They eventually found a three dunam (three-fourths of an acre) patch of land located 550 meters from the Gaza-Israel fence. “We chose this land because the rent is cheap, $100 a year, as it is farther away [from Gaza’s population centers],” Qudaih explained. “If we had chosen agricultural land that was closer, it would have cost us at least 300 dinars [about 1,400 shekels].”

But because they had no capital of their own, they needed help buying equipment. The local store owners did not want to take a risk and make loans to women they did not know, so one of their friends underwrote the debt in his name. They bought pipes and other equipment for NIS 2900 in total, paying only 300 shekels out of pocket. They decided to eschew fertilizers and keep their land entirely organic, focusing on growing peas, lettuce, and radishes.

They sowed their first seeds on October 20, 2020. “It’s a date I’ll never forget,” recalled Qudaih, “we worked every day from six in the morning until six in the evening.” A hundred days later, the five kilograms of seeds they planted yielded several tons of crops.

“During the harvest, I got engaged and my fiancé helped us, as did our families and friends,” said Qudaih. “We were pleasantly surprised by the love, encouragement, and help we received. When we installed an irrigation system, all the farmers in the area came to help us connect the water network.”

To help sell their goods, they opened Facebook and Instagram pages, where they began advertising their peas at three shekels per kilogram. “The response was unprecedented,”Qudaih said. “People from Khan Yunis, Gaza City, and even Rafah sent us orders. Some came to our land and picked the peas they had ordered. In Khuza’a, we made online deliveries by bicycle. One of our colleagues biked around and delivered the peas to the different homes.”

Not everything went smoothly. Unfortunately, Khuza’a faced a winter of heavy rain and hail, a rare phenomenon in the area. “We ran to the land as it poured outside, we sat there and cried,” says Qudaih. “We found that our crop had been destroyed, that all the leaves were black. We did not know what to do. We thought that no one would want black, ugly peas. We picked them and sat in my house located next to the land, shelled the peas and sold them. People ordered [the peas], and that is how we were saved during our first harvest.”

Word quickly spread, and the three young women became local heroes thanks to the videos they posted on Facebook and Instagram. They began to be recognized on the street. When the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC) in Gaza, an NGO that seeks to empower Palestinian farmers in the occupied territories, heard about Green Girls, it approached the women and offered them five dunam (1.2 acres) in the same area to grow carrots.

The young women organized a group of 20 young unemployed university graduates, four of whom became partners in Green Girls. The UAWC helped them to expand their irrigation system, but in late May, 11 days after they planted the carrot seeds, the latest round of violence between Israel and Hamas broke out.

The young women were unable to reach the land because of the proximity to the fence that separates Israel and Gaza. After the end of the war, they irrigated the crops with large amounts of water to try and save them. Their expenses increased, and the carrots came out smaller than expected.

Following the ceasefire, Israel partially opened Gaza’s crossings, allowing an Israel-based company to begin importing larger carrots into the strip at half a shekel per kilogram. This forced the young women to sell their carrots at 30 agorot (10 cents) per kilogram instead of three shekels as planned. Instead of five tons of crop, they managed to grow only two. The water costs alone are more than 2,000 shekels, said Qudaih.

Thanks to the publicity, the three young women also received orders from the West Bank but were unable to send goods there. Until the end of June, Israel forbade Gaza from exporting products to the West Bank and Israel, leading to a glut of produce in the local market (which farmers sold at a loss), the destruction of crops, and significant financial damage to farmers and merchants. Currently, Israel allows only limited exports of agricultural products from Gaza to the West Bank.

Despite the obstacles, the young women did not give up. They rented a tuk-tuk and sold their goods directly to merchants, who in turn sold the goods as “the girls’ carrots.” After the pea and carrot season ended, they grew melon, which sold well at a price of 1.5 shekels per half kilogram.

Green Girls grow vegetables in an open area, and do not have the financial means to build greenhouses. The cost of water is just one of the obstacles they face; the severe restrictions on the entry of goods into Gaza prevents, among other things, the ability to repair and improve the strip’s water infrastructure. This policy has in the past led to the destruction of agricultural goods and other difficulties.

According to Israeli human rights organization Gisha, despite recent minor concessions, Israel continues to prevent the entry of thousands of necessary goods into the Gaza Strip, including raw materials and spare parts essential for production in various industries, including water infrastructure. Among other things, Israel also prevents the entry of building materials necessary for the restoration of residential buildings and civilian buildings that were severely damaged or completely destroyed during the fighting.

Qudaih and her friends have big dreams of expanding their initiative. “The moment we expand, we’ll need more hands — that way we can employ more unemployed graduates. We can use the help. Young people have a lot of ambition, but we need economic aid from the Agriculture Ministry or organizations around the world.”

“We live in an imprisoned strip. This is what we have to work with. We are realistic. We dream of becoming a company and start marketing to the West Bank and other areas. We have managed to spread the culture of land and agriculture. Lots of young men and women follow us and consult with us. Some also started growing vegetables and we went to help them and encourage them to take initiative.”

“Right now, we are waiting for the heat to fade. When we raise some money, our next project will be to grow zucchini and maybe also broccoli, red cabbage, and kohlrabi. We are continuing, and the sky is the limit.”

Suha Arraf is a director, screenwriter and producer; she writes about Arab society, Palestinian culture, and feminism