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URL: http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=76661 

HEBRON, WEST BANK, 10 February 2008 (IRIN) - A recent cold snap with sub-zero temperatures has caused farmers in the West Bank to incur losses of nearly US$14.5 million, according to initial estimates by the Palestinian ministry of agriculture (MoA) set out in a 6 February joint "fact sheet" with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The winter cash crop is the most profitable and "[as] a direct result of the frost, thousands of farmers have lost their main source of income for the next [few] months," the "fact sheet", which was emailed to IRIN, said.

Between 70 and 100 percent of crops planted in the open - mainly zucchinis, aubergines, beans, tomatoes, peppers and fruit trees - have either been lost or damaged.

A Palestinian Authority (PA) document obtained by IRIN detailed the damage in the northern part of Hebron District during seven days of frost and sub-zero temperatures in January, and said about $1.5 million worth of damage had been incurred mainly in open fields, while beehive growers had suffered losses estimated at about $100,000.

The FAO and MoA have appealed for urgent funding to help affected farmers replant in the next inter-cropping season, at the end of February, noting that "most farmers will be unable to plant new crops without external assistance".

The PA has reportedly allocated nearly seven million dollars as cash compensation for the farmers, but IRIN was unable to confirm this or when the farmers might be paid.

"About every 7-10 years a major frost hits the region," an Israeli official with the national meteorological service (who preferred anonymity as he was not authorised to speak to the press), told IRIN. "By frost we mean a relatively prolonged period of relatively exceptionally cold weather that is spread out over a large area," he explained.

In the crisis-plagued Gaza Strip, where farmers were already going bankrupt due to the ban on exports, losses caused by the prolonged frost were estimated at over $4.5 million.

Distraught bee-keeper

"They are all dead," said Amin al-Bayed, holding up a handful of lifeless honey-makers. He lost his bees in all 14 of his beehives during the frost. "We had very low temperatures at night, about seven below zero, and it went on for a week. The bees couldn't handle it," he said as his children played with the now empty hives.

He usually managed to make about a third of his overall income by selling hives and honey.

"I had a goal to reach 100 hives, I wanted to build it up," Amin, a registered Palestinian refugee, told IRIN. He had hoped to start a business marketing honey products as natural remedies.

"Now, I have to start all over [again], but I don't know where I will get the money," he said from his home in the Fawwar refugee camp.

Amin said that now, more than in the past, he was in need of assistance from UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, but that he had not received food parcels in over six months.

"Since the events in Nahr al-Bared [troubled refugee camp in northern Lebanon] and the emergency in Gaza we get less aid," Amin said, adding that he works three months a year with UNWRA's job creation programme.

Frost adds to existing woes

For farmer Hassan Jaber, who grows radishes and cauliflowers in Beqaa village near Hebron, years of troubles with the nearby Israeli settlement have already cost him heavily. The recent cold weather had added to his financial woes.

"We had 30 dunams [30,000 square metres] of our agricultural land confiscated by the [nearby] settlement of Harsina in the late 1990s," he said, pointing towards the fence around the settlement which encroaches on his house.

"Farming is my only source of income. Most people in this area are like this," he told IRIN. He and his wife have 11 children and help support other members of the extended family.

"I lost 15,000-20,000 shekels [$4,000-5,500] because of the frost," he said.

Hassan can borrow money in order to replant next season but he was concerned about entering into a cycle of debt, especially as raw material costs were rising while his produce continued to fetch the same price.

"I can't export to Israel any more because of their restrictions. We can't export to Gaza, because of the closure there. I can't export to Jordan because I don't have [an Israeli-issued] permit," he said, adding that he could only sell within the West Bank, but even there some markets were hard to reach due to checkpoints.