In Jabalia market, north of Gaza City, Mohammed Okasha, 42, moves between the stalls of vegetables wearily inspecting piles of tomatoes, cucumber, potatoes and other vegetables.
Okasha suspects that the products are harming his family “because of the unhealthy and illegal use of fertilizers, which some farmers are using,” he tells Newsweek Middle East.
Rumors are rampant in Gaza about the quality of locally farmed produce. Many fear that agricultural produce may be carcinogenic, because of the illegal use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in the isolated Palestinian strip. Some of these rumors are well grounded in fact; and as a consequence, farmers, the general public and the Ministry of Agriculture in Gaza are trading accusations over who bears the lion’s share of responsibility.
In the town of Beit Lahia, north of Gaza, Othman Abu Haloub, sprays insecticide from a pump he carries on his shoulders.
According to the 66-year old farmer, it is a harmless chemical with a smell that repels worms and rats from the field, which is why he “is spraying without using a facemask, gloves or boots.” A prominent farmer in his town, Abu Haloub says he knew of some farmers who use illegal fertilizers and pesticides to speed up their production and increase the quantity of the products as well as enhance their size.
“They don’t use chemicals in a responsible way. They are unlearned, and others lack conscience,” Abu Haloub says.
There is, in fact, some evidence to suggest that pesticides have made their way into Gaza’s food chain. Nariman Atawneh, a researcher on environmental affairs, who has undertaken extensive studies on the subject, is clear that the farmers “use 70 pesticides, half of [which] are internationally forbidden including Thiophanate-methyle.” Such pesticides may cause renal failure, troubles in the Thyroid gland and other chronic diseases, according to Atawneh.
But whether or not the burden should fall to farmers or the ministry for these infractions is unclear. Haloub also stresses that the Ministry of Agriculture and other official bodies do not perform their jobs properly. “The ministry does not follow up enough, nobody cares there. Farmers who breach the law must be penalized or at least let those who are unlearned attend training courses, otherwise they will continue with their wrongdoing,” he says.
The ministry’s officials do not deny that some farmers illegally use pesticides. But they refute allegations that the ministry stands aside with its hands tied. “Most of the produce in Gaza is healthy, and the pesticide use is legal. But there are some farmers who cheat and we punish them. Last month we bulldozed several donums [one donum equals 1000 square meters] of cucumber,” the Director General of Plant Inspection and development at the ministry, agricultural engineer, Wael Thabet, tells Newsweek Middle East.
Some farmers, according to Thabet, smuggle Fenamephos and other materials from Israeli territories.
“Fenamephos is one of the restricted materials. It should be used three months before the harvest, but maybe some farmers collect their products before the legal period just to have a better price in the local market,” says Thabet. He adds that the ministry prevents the import and use of tens of materials like Methyl bromide. “It could be legal in other countries but it is so risky in Gaza’s environment.”
Links to Cancer?
Pesticides in the food chain have consequences, even if this goes unacknowledged by some farmers.
The head of Oncology Department at Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza, Dr. Khaled Thabet, says “there is no scientific study or evidence that shows the real causes of cancer cases in Gaza.” But he adds that “the continued Israeli wars, chemical fertilizers and pesticides and pollution” may all contribute to the rise in cancer cases.
“However, it is highly likely that the use of chemical fertilizers could be a main reason behind certain cancer cases. That’s why colon cancer is on the top of the pyramid in our male patients,” he tells Newsweek Middle East.
According to Dr. Thabet, there was a noticeable hike in the number of cancer patients in Gaza following Israel’s war in 2008. “We now speak about the 2008 war because the results of Israel’s use of depleted uranium and other radioactive material appear after an average of five to 10 years,” he explains.
Atawneh’s research showed that in Gaza, testing on Palestinian mothers’ milk and blood plasma have shown that the milk was “polluted with organic chlorine which might lead to breast cancer,” she says.
Data provided by Dr. Thabet and other doctors, show that the number of cancer patients is on the rise. In 2010 the average number of cancer patients was 65 per 100,000; but in 2014, statistics show a significant rise to 85 per 100,000, the region’s highest excluding Israel.
It can’t be all bad, as Gaza has begun to export again, under stringent food controls.
Following international pressure, mainly from Holland, the Israeli government—which prevented Gaza from exporting anything since its siege in 2006—now allows the strip to export 10 percent of its agricultural produce. The Ministry of Agriculture asserts that exporting Gaza’s agricultural products to Europe and Arab countries proves that the products are healthy because “they pass through professional and serious laboratory testing.”
The Director General of Marketing at the ministry, Tahsin Al Saqqa, says the amount of the exported products defeats any claims that Gaza agriculture is not healthy.
In 2015, Gaza exported 13,015 tons of vegetables and fruits to Europe, Israel and Arab countries. “They import from Gaza after very serious and professional laboratory testing,” Al Saqqa tells Newseek Middle East. In the first two months of 2016 alone, Gaza exported about 4,000 tons of vegetables to Israel and Jordan according to the ministry.
Street Fears: Gaza Shoppers
But these stringent export controls have done little to allay the general public’s fears. And despite the lack of public trust, Gazans feel they have no other choice but to use the available products. “Honestly I am afraid but finally I have no choice but to buy to feed my kids… I do not trust the farmers anymore,” says Okasha.
The same feeling was relayed by Shaima Miqdad, 49, who was selecting potatoes with her daughter. “I do hear about the chemical materials in agricultural products, but what can I do? I have no alternative but to buy and hope what we hear is just rumor,” she says.
Despite admitting he’s “no expert” when it comes to agricultural issues, Yamen Hamad, 36, from Beit Hanoun, says he feels “something is wrong,” with the food, but he can’t quite put his finger on it. He adds that he’s “heard the farmers may be using yeast to make the potatoes larger too.”
But the young man is luckier than others, as he says that his father owns a piece of land and has started growing his own vegetables to avoid the “polluted” products in the market.
In the meantime, Gazans have their own ways of avoiding the effect of the pesticides.
Okasha says he does not buy vegetables or fruits prior to them being in season. “If we have okra in July, I do not buy it in May… and so on.” He adds that he also avoids products that are larger than normal.
Others have resorted to spurious ways that are yet to be proven successful, including leaving the vegetables two or three days at home before eating them, which, according to some—including Miqdad—cleanses chemicals out the vegetable. “My husband is a nurse, he advised me to do that. The farmers have no ethics and the official bodies are careless,” she says.
Nahed, the farmer from Gaza is defiant. “In all cases, our kids eat from the same products and if there is any chance [of] exporting, we are ready for any examination,” Nahed says.