AL-QARARA, Gaza Strip (AP) -- Gaza farmers have begun growing mint, basil and coriander, saying such herbs can serve as a remedy for some of the blockaded Palestinian territory's economic woes.
The economy has struggled since the Islamic militant group Hamas seized control of the coastal strip in 2007, triggering severe restrictions on trade and movement by neighboring Israel and Egypt. More than 70 percent of Gaza's 1.7 million people receive humanitarian aid, and nearly 33 percent are jobless.
Looking for blockade loopholes, five Gaza farmers began growing herbs a year ago, most in greenhouses on land where Jewish settlers used to raise the same crops until Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. "The motive ... was to find new products that we can grow here in Gaza and that return a good income and can employ more people," said farmer Jamal Abu Naja, 47.
Output is still small. Over the past year, the Gaza pioneers exported 50 tons, compared to 10,000 tons by their Israeli counterparts and more than 2,000 tons by Palestinian growers in the West Bank.
However, growers in the West Bank and Gaza believe their market share can increase, especially in Europe where several major supermarket chains have stopped buying produce from Jewish settlements in the West Bank's Jordan Valley, war-won land the Palestinians want for their state.
"There are no signs yet of (Palestinian farmers) replacing the Israeli products, but there is a big potential if we expand the sector," said Mazen Sinokrot, the biggest Palestinian herb grower in the West Bank.
Israel bars virtually all exports from the Gaza Strip, as part of the border blockade, but makes an exception for some fresh produce.
Traditionally, Gaza farmers have exported strawberries and carnations, though the cost of growing water-intensive crops and transporting them to Europe has cut deep into their profits.
Some argue that cultivating fresh herbs makes more sense economically because they require less water, grow more quickly, cost less to ship and are always in high demand.
"This can elevate the Gaza economy," said Mohammed Abu Ouda, an expert in agricultural development.
Even if herbs offer a new opportunity, Israel's export policies make it harder for Gaza farmers to make a profit.
Israel only permits the farmers to export abroad, but not to Israel and the West Bank, traditionally Gaza's main markets. Gaza's agricultural exports are trucked through Israel to Jordan and from there flown to far-flung destinations, including Europe, the United States and Russia.
Critics say that once goods are allowed out of Gaza after having undergone Israeli security checks, there's no reason to limit the destinations to which they can be sent.
"Any attempt to develop new industries and markets is wonderful, but the bottom line is that in order to revive the economy people in Gaza need access to external markets, and right now that access is extremely limited," said Sari Bashi of the Israeli human rights group Gisha. "Europe is not going to be a big money-maker for Gaza in the short or medium term."
Israel has slightly eased its blockade since 2010, but closes its cargo crossing with Gaza — the territory's only export route — whenever Gaza militants fire rockets toward Israel.
At Abu Naja's farm near the Gaza village of al-Qarara, gloved workers prepared a shipment of mint and chives to Russia this week. Employees sat around large tables, washing and sorting the herbs. Others weighed them and packed them into cartons.
Foreman Suleiman Kahwaje, 60, said he has been growing crops for export for the past 40 years, including on farms run by Gaza settlers and in Israel.
"We have the workers. We have the land, but we don't have free borders to market the products in the right way," said Kahwaje. "When they close the border, my heart races and I start to pray to God that it will open the next day."
Abu Naja said European clients are reluctant to sign long-term contracts with the Gaza growers because of uncertainty at the border. "They fear that the products don't reach them on time," he said.
He said he burned three tons of basil and mint intended for export last April, losing $15,000, because of a prolonged closure of Israel's Kerem Shalom crossing in response to rocket fire from Gaza. He said Israeli packaging restrictions at the crossing also drives up costs.
Maj. Guy Inbar, an Israeli Defense Ministry official, said the crossing is only closed for security reasons and the growers should register any complaints with Hamas.
Israel holds Hamas responsible for all rocket fire, arguing that as Gaza's ruler the group must keep the border quiet even if most of the attacks are carried out by smaller militant groups.
Inbar said Israel has supported the efforts of Gaza farmers to branch out, including by arranging training for the herb growers. "They are still learning, they are still improving," he said. Abu Naja and others said they learned about herbs from U.N. experts who visited Gaza.
Gaza's current export level is about 1 percent of what it was before 2007, when Gaza traded in a wide variety of goods, Bashi said.
Most of the agricultural exports to Europe from Gaza last year were subsidized by the Dutch government, in part because of the higher transportation costs, she said. But 22 truckloads of herbs sent to the U.S. were not.
Still, herbs have emerged as a profitable crop, said Abu Naja who also grows carnations, strawberries and cherry tomatoes.
For example, a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of fresh mint sells for about $2 locally, but for $20 in northern Europe. Meanwhile, Gaza's flower exporters also face increasing competition from growers in North Africa.
If Gaza's borders were open, farmers would have an incentive to look for more new crops to grow, said Abu Naja, who is branching out into broccoli and ginger.
"Instead of asking for food donations, we could feed the world," he said.
Associated Press writers Ian Deitch and Karin Laub in Jerusalem and Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank contributed to this report.