Israeli settlers' greenhouses in the Gaza Strip, which the settlers are leaving this month, will be bought by U.S. donors, including former World Bank president James Wolfensohn, and transferred to the Palestinians.
Under an accord reached yesterday, the donors agreed to pay growers $14-million (U.S.) for the greenhouses covering about 850 acres (340 hectares), said Boaz Karni, treasurer for the Economic Co-operation Foundation, a Tel Aviv-based organization that will be a conduit for the transaction.
The donors, except for Mr. Wolfensohn who helped arrange the transaction, asked not to be identified, he said.
"The growers are obligated to leave the greenhouses, including the irrigation and computer controllers, in condition that someone can immediately begin working in them," Mr. Karni said in a telephone interview. Transferring the greenhouses, with income of about $75-million a year, is one of six issues Israel and the Palestinians needed to resolve to help the Gaza economy after Israel leaves, Mr. Wolfensohn, now special envoy for disengagement for the Middle East "quartet" -- the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations -- said earlier.
Israel will begin evacuating settlers from 21 Gaza communities and four others in the West Bank, starting Aug. 17, in a move Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said he hopes will ease pressure on Israel for more territorial concessions.
Violent Palestinian protests against the Israeli presence, the intifada, that started in 2000, cut Palestinian per capita income by about 30 per cent by the end of 2004, according to the World Bank. To help the economy recover, Mr. Wolfensohn wants to ease the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza and is counting on donor countries to provide $9-billion in aid over the next three years.
Mr. Wolfensohn himself gave $500,000 of the $14-million for the greenhouses, Mr. Karni said.
Growers, who will be getting an average $16,000 per acre for their property, will receive half the money when they leave and the other half after the greenhouses have been inspected, he said.
The Economic Co-operation Fund will buy the greenhouses from the growers and transfer them to an arm of the Palestinian Authority, probably the Palestine Investment Fund, Mr. Karni said. Palestinians rejected a plan that called for the U.S. foreign aid agency USAid to buy the greenhouses, said an official close to the negotiations who declined to be identified.
Though the $14-million may be equal to less than 10 per cent of the real value of the greenhouses, growers are also entitled to get about 60 per cent of the value from the Israeli government, Mr. Karni said. The government subsidized their construction to begin with, he added.
"It gives them fair compensation for their investment," he said.
Mr. Karni said he believed that Palestinian growers, who already export about $15-million in crops such as strawberries from their own greenhouses in Gaza, will be able to expand output at the facilities they are taking over from the settlers.
The Israeli agricultural exporter Agrexco markets Palestinian produce in Europe and agreed to take on products from the new greenhouses, Mr. Karni said.