I was speaking to a couple of friends the other night when someone mentioned the oft-repeated narrative about how Palestinians in Gaza supposedly tore apart the beautiful greenhouses left behind for them in an act of enraged mob violence against their former overlords.
This story is told with a clear intent: to show that even when Israel is kind and generous with Palestinians, the Palestinians are so consumed with hatred that they spoil it. Therefore we should not think being kind and generous with them will help resolve the situation. To quote something someone at the gathering said, “I don’t think ‘making nice’ with them is going to solve the conflict.”
Understanding that the Greenhouse Myth is not true is important both because it helps us to understand the contours of the conflict more accurately and because it will make us more skeptical of the way simplistic, false narratives are deployed for the purposes of propaganda.
Those of us who have heard and believed this story should rightly wonder what other falsehoods and distortion we have been told, and why.
I told my friends that this story of the destruction of the greenhouses was largely untrue, an assertion that was met with considerable skepticism- they had heard this story from Rabbis, pro-Israel speakers, and friends for years. This morning I wrote the following letter to them to share with them the information that I have on this episode:
I wanted to follow up with you on the subject of the Gaza greenhouses today- the reason is not that I want to convince you to agree with me on every point, but that I am concerned that you feel that when I present information and opinions on Israel/Palestine I have good reason for them- I may in the end still be proven wrong, but I am speaking to the best of ability on the basis of research and opinions worth taking seriously, in almost every case not from armchair observers but from Israelis or Palestinians themselves, or experts with long experience in the region.
Below is a link to an article by Peter Beinart, an Orthodox Jewish Zionist who is probably my favorite reporter and writer on Israel/Palestine. Here is an excerpt:
“American Jewish leaders usually tell the story this way: When the settlers left, Israel handed over their greenhouses to the Palestinians, hoping they would use them to create jobs. Instead, Palestinians tore them down in an anti-Jewish rage.”
“But one person who does not endorse that narrative is the prime mover behind the greenhouse deal, Australian-Jewish businessman James Wolfensohn, who served as the Quartet’s Special Envoy for Gaza Disengagement. In his memoir, Wolfensohn notes that “some damage was done to the greenhouses [as the result of post-disengagement looting] but they came through essentially intact” and were subsequently guarded by Palestinian Authority police. What really doomed the greenhouse initiative, Wolfensohn argues, were Israeli restrictions on Gazan exports. “In early December , he writes, “the much-awaited first harvest of quality cash crops — strawberries, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet peppers and flowers — began. These crops were intended for export via Israel for Europe. But their success relied upon the Karni crossing [between Gaza and Israel], which, beginning in mid-January 2006, was closed more than not. The Palestine Economic Development Corporation, which was managing the greenhouses taken over from the settlers, said that it was experiencing losses in excess of $120,000 per day. It was excruciating. This lost harvest was the most recognizable sign of Gaza’s declining fortunes and the biggest personal disappointment during my mandate.”
Some more detail from my own research: note the mention of “looting.” This doesn’t refer to the destruction of the greenhouses, but to Gazans (who are desperately poor, under-employed, and without adequate infrastructural resources) stealing equipment from the greenhouses (like irrigation pipes for their farms).
Beinart doesn’t mention the fact that settlers, as they left, themselves vandalized as much as half of the greenhouses so Palestinians wouldn’t be able to use them. According to the New York Times, two months prior to the withdrawal Israeli settlers demolished about half of the greenhouses, “creating significant doubts that the greenhouses could be handed over to the Palestinians as ‘a living business.’”
The Gates foundation and James Wolfensohn, the US Special Envoy for Gaza Disengagement, bought the remaining greenhouses from the Israeli settlers on behalf of the Palestinians in Gaza for $14 million. The Palestine Economic Development Company (PED) was an organization founded by the Palestinian Authority to take charge of the greenhouse project after it was turned over to the Palestinians. The PED invested more than $20 million into the project. Jabir, head of the PED, has said that as a result of the destruction by Israeli settlers and Palestinian looters the PED had to invest an additional $5 million into the greenhouse project to revive it.
Despite these setbacks by late November, the New York Times and the Jerusalem Post reported that the Palestinians were preparing to harvest a crop of peppers, strawberries, tomatoes and herbs worth $20 million.
In mid-December, the greenhouses made their first export of 8 tons of peppers. Speaking to the Associated Press about the success of the project, Bassil Jabir said, “It makes us proud. This land was a symbol of occupation and many people were doubting our ability to rehabilitate [it], but now we have proven that we, as Palestinians, are able to manage our lives, to farm our land and to do our own business.”
According to Jabir, in order for the project to be successful, it would require moving at least 25 truckloads of produce a day through the Karni crossing. Yet most days he was only able to move 3 truckloads. As Justin Schwegel wrote in Mondoweiss, “a crossing that was supposed to be open all the time according to an international agreement to which Israel was party, was instead only opened by Israel sporadically and unpredictably.”
Israel cited security concerns as the reason, though it should be noted that Beinart and other experts have argued convincingly for years that the restrictions on Gaza are excessive and counter-productive (see more on this below). As Schwegel wrote, “By February 2006, the BBC reported that because the farmers could not get their produce through the crossing, trucks were dumping perfect, ripe produce onto a wasteland to be eaten by goats.”
So what sunk the greenhouses? The early looting done by Palestinians was in fact effectively irrelevant since the PED and foreign philanthropists paid to replace the stolen equipment before the structurally intact greenhouses began functioning. What sunk the greenhouses was the Karni crossing between Gaza and Israel not being open reliably enough for the Greenhouses to do business.
One can blame the Palestinians anyway — if Israelis weren’t afraid of Palestinian terrorism, the crossings would be open!
Or one can blame Israel — Israel has enough intelligence to tell the difference between vegetable trucks and terrorists, if they had been smart and had the will they could’ve found a way to support this Palestinian success story!
Or both — combine the previous two arguments. The one thing one can not do is blame crowds of Palestinians tearing down the greenhouses in a rage with their bare hands, because they are purely a figment of the imagination.
For more on Beinart’s take on all of this, read the following by him in Ha’aretz:
Here is Beinart’s book on Zionism, which I highly recommend:
Thanks for taking the time to read this.
All the best,