Thousands of tons of Israeli apples will be exported to Syria later this week in a renewal of an arrangement that was halted last year due to the civil war across the border.
The apples, grown by Druze farmers on the Golan Heights, are transferred between the two countries with the coordination of the United Nations and the International Red Cross.
This year is set to be the largest ever export since the arrangement began several years ago. Some 18,000 tons of apples will pass through the border crossing at Quneitra over the next three months.
The process of moving the apples between the two countries — which are technically at war — is convoluted. Apples from the farmers’ orchards are unloaded from trucks on the Israeli side of the border and then loaded onto Red Cross trucks brought from Jordan and driven by drivers specially hired for the job from Kenya. The trucks travel a few hundred meters in a convey led by a United Nations vehicle. Once they have crossed the border, the apples are transferred to a third truck, from Syria, and head to the local markets.
Druze-run orchards on the Golan are spread over 15,000 dunams (3,750 acres) and produce about 50,000 tons of apples each year, about a third of Israel’s apple market.
The practice began in 2005, when 5,000 tons of apples from orchards on the Golan were exported to Syria. The arrangement apparently benefits everyone involved: for Israel, unloading a large excess of apples keeps the price of the fruit stable; the Druze farmers are able to market their surplus; and the Syrians gain a supply of regionally grown fresh apples. However, when war erupted in 2011 the situation became too volatile and in 2012 the exports were abandoned.
Two weeks ago, the director-general of the Fruit Growers Association, Ilan Eshel, said the apples would not go to Syria due to the situation across the border. Apple growers on the Golan began exploring the possibility of selling their surplus to the Israeli market or the Palestinian market in the West Bank and Gaza. However, after coordinating with the Red Cross and the Syrian authorities, who are apparently keen to show that they still have a grip on the country’s borders, arrangement were made to deliver the fruit.
In recent weeks clashes between rebel forces and the Syrian army have raged along the border with Israel, with errant mortars landing on the Israeli side of the border on Saturday, but so far the rebels have not captured any border crossing points.
Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War and has since annexed the mountainous plateau. Syria still demands its return and regards the local Druze residents as its citizens living under occupation. As a result, delicate humanitarian arrangements are sometimes made between Israel and Syria through international organizations and on behalf of the local Druze population, which is divided by the ceasefire line between the two countries.
Syrian President Bashar Assad vowed Sunday to hit back at Israel for a reported January airstrike on Syrian soil, though he said it might not be an overt counterattack.
“We retaliated in our own way, and only the Israelis know what we mean. Retaliation does not mean missile for missile or bullet for bullet. Our own way does not have to be announced,” he said in an interview with The Sunday Times.