Ending trade conflict, Israel and PA lift bans on each other’s produce

Israeli agriculture minister says he reopened door to Palestinian imports after Ramallah said it would permit Israeli lamb in local markets

Adam Rasgon is a former Palestinian affairs reporter at The Times of Israel

Palestinians shop at a vegetable market in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, August 30, 2018 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Palestinians shop at a vegetable market in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, August 30, 2018 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Israel and the Palestinian Authority have reversed bans on each other’s fruit and vegetable imports, ending a short-lived trade conflict.

Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel ordered authorities not to permit Palestinian fruit and vegetable imports into Israel on December 17 after the PA instructed Palestinian meat-sellers to stop purchasing lamb from the Jewish state, Dalia Goldenberg, a spokeswoman for the minister, said in a phone call last week.

The PA responded to the ban on Palestinian fruit and vegetable imports last Thursday with a decision to bar the entry of Israeli fruit, vegetable and poultry imports into Palestinian markets.

But on Sunday, Goldenberg said that Ariel had lifted the ban on Palestinian produce imports after PA Agriculture Minister Sufian Sultan sent a message to the Agriculture Ministry, stating that he would permit the import of Israeli-bred lamb into Palestinian markets.

Officials in the PA Agriculture Ministry deny that a decision was ever made to ban Israeli-bred lamb imports into Palestinian markets.

“In light of the Palestinian agriculture minister’s notification that he is allowing the free entry of Israeli-bred lamb [into Palestinian markets], I cancel my order to block the transfer of produce from the Palestinian Authority to Israel,” Ariel said in a statement.

Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel at a National Union party conference in Jerusalem on March 6, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Shortly after Ariel’s statement, the PA Agriculture Ministry announced it would also retract its ban of Israeli fruit, vegetable and poultry imports.

“The Agriculture Ministry announced the resumption of issuing permits for products that were allowed in before [Thursday]…after the Israeli side walked back its oppressive decision at the expense of our farmers and opened its border crossings once again to Palestinian fruits and vegetables,” the official PA news site Wafa reported.

In a statement last Wednesday, the PA Agricultural Ministry said it had banned Palestinian meat purveyors on December 2 from purchasing lamb from Israeli importers. The ministry said it made the decision after the price of lamb in the Palestinian market fell below its local cost of production.

Tareq Abu Laban, the PA Agriculture Ministry’s director of marketing, said the decision only affected lamb products that Israeli merchants import from abroad, emphasizing it did not impact lamb grown in Israel. He said the decision was made for economic reasons.

“We made the decision after many local lamb farmers asked us to stop foreign lamb imports. We did it to protect our farmers,” he said last Wednesday in a phone call.

Suzan Odeh, an official in the PA Agriculture Ministry’s media office, reiterated Abu Laban’s remarks on Monday.

Goldenberg, however, denied Abu Laban and Odeh’s account, insisting that the PA had halted Israeli-bred lamb — and not just imports — from entering Palestinian markets.

She also said “the PA’s decision to order Palestinian meat-sellers to stop buying lamb from Israel” had violated the Paris Protocol, the economic annex of the Oslo Accords signed in the mid-1990s by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Asked to provide the specific clause the PA had violated, Goldenberg did not respond.

Abu Laban denied the PA Agriculture Ministry’s decision was in contravention of agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.

A Palestinian farmer collecting watermelons in the southern Gaza Strip on May 9, 2015. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Israeli security officials had warned Ariel that his decision to ban fruit and vegetable imports from the PA could lead to an escalation in violence against Israelis, Hadashot news reported in mid-December.

“This is an irresponsible and populist decision that flows from purely political considerations, and comes at the expense of the public’s safety, including the safety of settlers,” an unnamed defense official told the television station. “It also will encourage smuggling and lead to an increase in prices in Israel.”

Goldenberg defended Ariel’s decision, saying the minister merely wanted to see agreements between Israel and the Palestinians to be implemented.

Former PA agriculture minister Walid Assaf said that the Palestinians traditionally import approximately NIS 700-800 million  ($185 million-$212 million) in fruits and vegetables every year as well as NIS 10 million ($2.6 million) in poultry.

“I believe Israel will be facing major losses,” Assaf said in a phone call on Thursday.

Abbas Melhem, the director of the Palestinian Farmers Union, said in a phone call that Palestinian farmers annually send some NIS 207 million ($55 million) of produce to Israel and added that the economies of many areas of the West Bank, especially Tubas, Tulkarem and Jenin, rely on exporting fruits and vegetables to the Jewish state.

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