On 12th February, two days prior to Valentine's Day, the Israeli army allowed 25,000 carnation flowers grown by Palestinian growers in the Gaza Strip to cross the border into Israel, through the Kerem Shalom crossing, and be shipped to the Netherlands by Agrexco in time for Valentine. According to the Israeli army, the clearance of the carnations – the first export permitted out of besieged Gaza for more than a year– was in response to a request from the Dutch government, which has apparently been promoting the production of carnations grown in the Gaza Strip. Israeli military spokesman Major Peter Lerner, of the military's Civil Co-ordination Office, claimed the move was a "goodwill gesture" to the Dutch government, a statement that was later transformed in some media reports to "a goodwill gesture from the Israeli government to the people of Gaza."
Palestinian farmers, however, saw the move merely as "propaganda" and "a publicity stunt". According to Abdel-Karim Ashour, director of the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee in Gaza, "What happened today is only propaganda. It is nothing. The season is almost finished now."
Too little, too late
The 'gesture' came too late to salvage the carnations crop, most of which had either rotted or been fed to sheep. About 70 percent of Gaza's carnation crop had already been lost due to the Israeli siege, which had prevented growers from importing seeds and pesticides early enough and from exporting their flowers. The situation worsened further following Israel's brutal 22-day aerial bombardment and ground invasion of Gaza earlier this year. The losses in flower sales suffered by growers in Gaza, who used to export 37 to 40 million carnations a year, are estimated to have already reached $4 million.
Major Peter Lerner clearly stated that there were no plans to allow further exports beyond those for Valentine's Day. The blockade was not lifted for vegetables or Gaza's traditionally high-quality strawberries. Israel has not allowed any exports from Gaza since June 2007.
Further, the carnations were unlikely to reach Europe in time for Valentine's Day. By Agrexco's own admission, the flowers would most probably not have been sold on Valentine. "It's borderline," said Ishai Sharon of Agrexco in Aalsmeer, Holland. "But even if they don't make it in time, they can still be sold to Russia and Eastern Europe for [the International] Women's Day on 8th March."
Produce of ....?
According to Agrexco, the Gazan flowers will be sold with the label "Product of Gaza Strip". However, it is often harder to detect the source of flowers than of fruit, vegetables and herbs. Many Agrexco flowers grown in Israel or the Occupied Territories are sold on or packed in Holland and labelled accordingly.
It is widely known now that some of the 'Israeli' fresh produce exported through Agrexco is grown in illegal Israeli settlements in the Palestinian Occupied Territories. In a court case in November 2004, the general manager of Agrexco UK at that time, Amos Orr, testified that his company markets 60 to 70 percent of the agricultural produce grown in Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories.
Agrexco Agricultural Export Company Ltd. markets most of Israel's exports of fresh fruit, vegetables and flowers. 50 percent of the company's shares are owned by the Israeli government and 25 percent by an Israeli settlers cooperative called Tnuva, although a ministerial committee last year decided to privatise it (see here). The company is worth half a billion Israeli Shekels (approximately £78m) and employs about 500 people. Agrexco's biggest fresh produce brand is Carmel. Other brand names include Jaffa, Coral and Jordan Plains. The company's subsidiaries include Agrexco (France), Agrexco (US), Carmexco (Italy), Eclectic, Carmel Cor, LACHS and Dalia (Germany). For more information on Agrexco, see http://www.corporatewatch.org/?lid=3192 .
'We don't want your bloodstained flowers'
Under the slogan "Don't flirt with Israeli Apartheid - Boycott Israeli goods", the Boycott Israeli Goods campaign (BIG) and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) called for a 'mass picket' at the Agrexco depot in Hayes, Middlesex, on 7th February, as part of an international week of action against Agrexco. About 70 protesters gathered at the warehouse, surrounded by a massive number of cops, who blockaded the depot since early morning.
On 12th Feb, a group of 15 women locked themselves to the gates of Carmel-Agrexco's depot to stop the delivery of Valentines roses. They were met with heavy force from security and police. Emma Goldman, a member of the London Anarchafeminist Kollective, said: "This Valentine's Day, women in Palestine will be struggling to piece their society together against the brute force of the occupation. Carmel-Agrexco, a state-owned company, is at the heart of Israel's colonisation and exploitation of Palestinian land."
On 23th February, a small protest was held at the London headquarters of Apax Partners, a UK-based private equity giant that holds a majority stake in Israeli agricultural co-op Tnuva, which owns 25 percent of Agrexco Agricultural Export Company. Earlier in the morning, an anonymous protester had D-locked the building's main door, causing some disruption to the baffled employees arriving to work (see http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2009/02/422708.html).
The campaign against Carmel-Agrexco in the UK has been growing ever since seven activists blockaded the company's depot in Hayes in November 2004 for over 11 hours, using metal fencing. The ensuing prosecution of the blockaders failed after campaigners argued that Agrexco was ancillary to Israeli war crimes under the International Criminal Court Act 2001. In September 2005, a Judge ruled that Agrexco (UK) must prove that their business was lawful. Charged with proving that the lawfulness of their business, Carmel-Agrexco withdrew their case. The acquittal of the seven activists before they were able to present their defence, however, meant that the court did not have to rule on the legality of Agrexco-Carmel's involvement in the supply of produce from illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Since then, dozens of blockades have occurred each year; Carmel's offices have been subject to extensive damage by protesters; and their depot occupied. Yet, the company has not been willing to take prosecutions against campaigners for fear of having their business practices exposed and questioned in court. For more on the actions against Carmel Agrexco in the UK over the years, see Indymedia UK's special topic page at http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/actions/2008/carmelagrexco/ .