The late novelist Ghassan Khanafani described his native Palestine as the “land of sad oranges.” Memories of his father gazing at the orange in his hand and “weeping like a helpless child” evoked the disposession of his family as they fled from Acre (Akka), near Haifa, to Lebanon, where they became refugees.
The Gaza Strip itself has in recent decades become a land of sad oranges. #Gaza is made up more than 70 percent by refugees, whose families in 1948 fled and were driven out from the villages and towns near Ashkelon, Ashdod and other communities in what is now Israel. Here, too, what some consider the sweetest oranges on earth have for generations been part of Gaza’s identity.
When I traveled to Gaza in 1997 for a public radio report on Gaza’s water crisis, it was clear the days of the orange groves were numbered. Seawater from overpumping was beginning to intrude into the coastal aquifer, turning drinking water wells brackish; already, 85 percent of those wells were unfit for human consumption. (Now that figure is 97 percent, which is why two thirds of Gazans have their water delivered by truck.) Oranges don’t like salty water, and the small sweet pockets were being guzzled both by large agricultural operations in the nearby Israeli settlements of Gaza (they would not be abandoned for another eight years), and by Gaza’s own orange farmers. “Every year we pump and it goes down and down,” farmer Ali Dehar told me back then.
Today Gaza’s once proud orange industry has shriveled to nearly nothing. “It is like a needle in an island of hay,” said Osama Abu Middain, whose father ran an orange cooperative that sent shiploads of orange crates to Eastern Europe every year. “Hundreds of thousands of boxes.” We visited Abu Middain in Zahra, in central Gaza and near the abandoned Israeli settlement of Netzarim, where he is building a villa near what used to be a large orange grove. His land sits on a tiny pocket of sweet water, but it’s not enough for a viable orange industry. In 2014, Israeli shells destroyed one of his wells, apparently in pursuit of Hamas militants who broke down his door and took refuge on the property to launch attacks against Israeli aircraft. “It was all oranges, to the end,” he says, gesturing toward his property line. “After they shelled the well, I decided to make it olive trees.”
Now we walk down neat sandy lanes, between a scattering of orange trees, date palms, pear trees, and the young olive grove. It is no longer a profitable operation, but Abu Middain, a man of means, does not seem bothered. “What’s between me and the tree is not money. It’s chemistry. I treat it like my kids.”
In the meantime, the few oranges he has left aren’t yet ripe, but some of them are in blossom, and of these remaining few, you can smell their perfume on the breeze.
Photos by Abdel Kareem Hana