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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
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And I'm Renee Montagne. Never mind the search for Mideast peace, this is a story of Mid East produce. Agricultural products are the biggest export from the Gaza Strip, but none of it is sold in Israel or even the Palestinian West Bank. NPR's Emily Harris asked why.
EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Not everyone in the Gaza Strip is poor. But unemployment is over 30 percent. More than 800,000 people in Gaza got food handouts from the United Nations last year - lining up regularly for flour, sugar, rice and oil.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible)
HARRIS: A million people are expected to need that help this year. Filippo Grandi stepped down a few months ago from leading the U.N. agency that gives out that food. He says one major problem is that few things made or grown in Gaza can be sold outside.
FILIPPO GRANDI: Gaza is a fairly competitive producer of cheap goods: furniture, food products, clothes and so forth. But its natural markets are Israel and the West Bank - markets that have been forbidden to the Gaza economy since 2007. And that has really taken a big hit on the welfare of the people.
HARRIS: Take strawberries. Israel does allow them to be sold from Gaza to Europe. But European markets only take the highest quality. Palestinian produce dealer Bashar al Masri of Harvest Company exports from Gaza. He is frustrated he can't sell anything from there to the West Bank, also a Palestinian area.
BASHAR AL MASRI: When I asked the Israeli authorities why, they said security reasons. I said I don't understand. If my little beautiful strawberry wants to blow itself up, it should do it in the plane. Why would it come into a Palestinian family home in the West Bank and then say surprise, I blow up. There is no logical answer.
HARRIS: Spokesman Guy Inbar for the Israeli agency dealing with this says products from Gaza aren't allowed to be sold in Israel or the West Bank because the militant Islamist group Hamas controls Gaza, and anything coming out of Gaza could be a security risk. He wouldn't speak on tape because of political sensitivities, but pointed out that Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and Europe.
(SOUNDBITE OF GATE CLOSING)
HARRIS: A gate closes at the only crossing for commercial goods between Gaza and Israel. Going out, goods are unloaded from Palestinian trucks in areas protected by blast walls. They're inspected by soldiers before Israeli trucks pick them up. Last year, the Dutch government gave Israel a state-of-the-art scanner to help.
MARTIJN LUCASSEN: It scans all kinds of things. It's distinct, organic from inorganic materials, it can detect the smallest metal items like bullets or whatever.
HARRIS: Martijn Lucassen is an economic expert with the Dutch representative office to the Palestinian Authority. He said the Netherlands believed the scanner would end Israel's prohibition on shipping Gazan products to the West Bank.
LUCASSEN: This was our understanding of the deal, and they are now citing security concerns to say that they still have to study this and that they cannot announce or approve the reestablishment of the trade connection from Gaza to the West Bank.
HARRIS: Israel has closely controlled what goes in and out of Gaza since Hamas took over the territory in 2007. It cites the rockets that continue to be fired at Israeli towns from Gaza and Hamas's refusal to give up violence. But Harvest Company export manager Ibrahim Barakat believes restrictions on sales to the West Bank are not due to security or to pressure Hamas - but economic.
IBRAHIM BARAKAT: They say political, but if you ask me, it's to protect their farmers. Because the West Bank is buying from Israel, like strawberries and others, so they want to protect the Israeli farmers.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (speaking foreign language)
HARRIS: Although hawkers in Jerusalem's central market will haggle, produce prices in Israel - and the West Bank - are often two to four times as high as in Gaza. Cheap labor makes the difference. But Uri Madar, an Israeli agricultural expert who helps train Gazan farmers, says the quality is the same.
URI MADAR: There is no difference in the strawberry or in the flowers between the Israeli farmer or the Gaza farmer. It's the same. It's the same land. It's the same area. Is no difference.
HARRIS: Gazan farmers don't imagine they'll be allowed in Israeli markets anytime soon. But Palestinian leaders recently set out to mend a long-running political split between the West Bank and Gaza. If that's successful, pressure may grow to reunify their economies as well. Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.