Monzir abu Ramadan grew up working in the shadow of his family's orange trees, back in the times when the groves ran across the flat plains here to the sea. His family lived off the orange and operated according to a simple credo: The fruit farms were not to be given away or sold.
"They said to me: 'Please keep these trees. Take care of the groves,' " said Abu Ramadan, 47. "But now, there is nothing in return. So how can I protect them? I can't keep them for nothing."
The oranges hang heavy now in the boughs of the old orchards of the Gaza Strip. But Abu Ramadan is afraid to visit his fields to harvest and says he wouldn't make much money if he did. War has choked the land around his groves and turned the process of exporting fruit into an unreliable enterprise.
After more than a century in the business, his family is giving up on citrus.
"I want you to remember this," Abu Ramadan said, clicking prayer beads through his fingers under the framed gazes of his father and grandfather. "In two or three years, when you come to Gaza you won't find any more orange groves. None."
Amid the gaudy slums and bomb-torn seascape of Gaza, it's easy to overlook the farmers. But they are here, and they are struggling. Palestinian agriculture has lost millions of dollars as the 2 1/2-year-old uprising against Israel has gone on.
The Abu Ramadan family's disillusionment is one more marker in the disappearance of orange groves from the Gazan landscape. Squeezed by combat and hobbled by poverty, the farmers have been going broke, giving up, forsaking citrus in favor of tomatoes or flowers.
"You can't earn the cost of the water," said Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights and a onetime orange farmer. "It used to be a flourishing business."
Armed with bulldozers and complaints that snipers lurk in the tangled brush, Israeli soldiers have obliterated untold numbers of orange and olive groves throughout Gaza and the West Bank. The army calls this practice "exposing"; Palestinians decry it as a systematic attack on their economy. When soldiers swept into Gaza last week to seize a swath of sandy farmland granted to Palestinians by the 1993 Oslo peace accords, this was one of their first moves: They felled the orange groves.
"It seems that citrus growers have suffered more in this respect," said Hagay Snir, a senior planner with the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture. "In many cases, orange groves were used as a shelter for terrorists."
The loss of the orange as the signature crop of Gaza is bitter. To both Israelis and Palestinians, the orange symbolizes prosperity and staying power. Citrus cultivation was among this region's first successful economic development projects.
The most famous Israeli orange is sold under the brand name Jaffa, after an ancient Arab port taken over by the Jewish state in 1948. In a sentimental speech, the Israeli ambassador to Britain once called the Jaffa orange "Israel's ambassador to the world." But in Ghassan Kanafani's short story "The Land of Sad Oranges," Palestinian refugees from Jaffa weep at the sight of a woman peddling oranges.
"The orange has a very great importance for us. It's a symbol that the Palestinian farmer sticks to his land," Gaza agriculture spokesman Gibril abu Ali said. "But many farmers have now switched to different fruits, and we encouraged them to do so."
As with most things that come from Gaza, it has been difficult to move the oranges beyond the mesh of cement and barbed wire that rings the sandy strip. Packers load the boxed fruit into trucks and send it through Israel to the Jordanian border, where it is stacked into Arab trucks and sent on to Persian Gulf countries. But since the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, broke out in September 2000, the journey has become complicated by export restrictions and security delays.
Last year's orange season coincided with some of the most intense fighting to date in the intifada. The harvest degenerated into a debacle of waste and delay as mounds of citrus were held up at checkpoints and at closed border crossings.
Israeli officials have tried to help. Despite a general breakdown in cooperation between the two sides, the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture still holds regular meetings with representatives from the Palestinian territories. Israel has a stake in the farmers' prosperity: The government owns half of the company that exports the bulk of Gazan produce. In quiet meetings this winter with the Palestinians, ministry officials agreed to let more oranges through, even though they have no power over security delays.
This season, too, has come at a bloody time, one so charged that Gazan farmers say they may not harvest their oranges at all. Israeli officials have reoccupied northern Gaza and hinted that they might take control of more land -- which would almost certainly set off fresh rounds of fighting.
Deadly, deep raids into Gaza City and the nearby refugee camp of Jabaliya have punctuated the winter. Snipers and bombers strike out at Israeli soldiers in the countryside; the troops flatten homes and kill scores of people, then haul out the bulldozers. In a season of war, farmers say they're afraid to venture near their land. And in contrast to their Israeli counterparts, no government compensates Palestinian growers for a bad season.
Tawfiq Budi burst into the strawberry cooperative here on a recent afternoon. His eyes were hooded with sleeplessness; he'd been awake since sunrise and had had no appetite for breakfast. "They're bulldozing at the edge of our farm," he said. "We're afraid they'll come to our land as well."
The men in the dim room nodded solemnly, then followed Budi down a dirt road to a dusty ridge overlooking a green wash of fields. The land ran north toward the Israeli line; a pair of bulldozers lumbered over the fields, gnawing at the earth. The farmers stood among the cactus, surveying the scene below.
The army had been bulldozing greenhouses, fields and roads for days, ever since the militant Hamas organization killed four young Israeli soldiers nearby, Palestinians said. In the end, Budi's berries escaped the bulldozers, but the area's wells were destroyed.
The 32-year-old farmer already had been forced to haul his crops on his back to his truck because soldiers had cut trenches into the road leading to his fields. And he is used to ducking when he hears the crackle of gunfire in the fields.
"We find ourselves suddenly in between the exchange of fire," Budi said. "Our people are shooting and they are shooting, and we pay the price."