20% of Israel's agricultural land is in the Gaza border area

Israeli aid groups address food crisis amid war fallout ahead of Passover

The Israel-Hamas war has kneecapped Israel’s agriculture industry, but volunteer organizations have come to the rescue as the festival of freedom arrives

Produce is sorted at the Leket Israel Logistics Center (Credit: Amir Yakoby/Leket Israel).
Produce is sorted at the Leket Israel Logistics Center (Credit: Amir Yakoby/Leket Israel).

On October 7, Israel’s farming industry lost approximately 40% of its workforce and 30% of its physical area when the nation’s agricultural center became a warzone and the site of mass death and destruction.

The war forced thousands of people in Israel’s north and south to abandon their homes, leaving hundreds of acres of farmland to lie fallow while the IDF secured the area from further Hamas attacks.

Six months later, Israelis are still feeling the blow as they prepare for the Passover holiday, and volunteer organizations like Leket Israel and B’nai B’rith Israel are working to put food on the tables of those unable to afford healthy meals.

“The poor are still poor,” Leket Israel’s founder, Joseph Gitler, told The Times of Israel. “And [now] you have people whose lives got sidetracked. That’s a very gentle word – their houses were destroyed, and they ran away with just a backpack.”

B’nai B’rith Israel, an international Jewish social service organization, launched the “B’nai B’rith Kimha Peschaha” operation to provide food during Passover to those who had to evacuate their homes in light of the war.

“Kimha Peschaha” refers to the custom of giving charity before Passover so that the poor can afford food for the holiday. B’nai B’rith has held this initiative annually for several years, but this year, the operation scaled up and placed a particular focus on evacuees.

Food is packed for B’nai B’rith’s Passover food Kimha Peschaha initiative (Credit: B’nai B’rith Israel).

About 500 food baskets were distributed to needy families in Sderot and surrounding towns, containing essential Passover items such as chicken, matzah, oil, matzah flour, mayonnaise and preserves.

Leket Israel, the national food bank, which rescues food that would otherwise be thrown away and distributes it to those in need via some 200 nonprofit organizations, reported in January that Israel’s war against Hamas is making things even worse than they normally are for the 1.4 million Israelis who can’t afford healthy food.

“Many people will celebrate the holiday around a sparse table,” said Leket CEO Gidi Kroch, “unable to ensure adequate food security for their families.”

“Despite our numerous proposals for an efficient and swift solution to the problem by utilizing food rescue, decision-makers do not show a genuine interest in addressing this issue,” said Kroch.

Stepping up for the farmers

Leket Israel founder and chairman Joseph Gitler. (Courtesy Leket Israel)

Leket has stepped outside of its regular duties during wartime to help bolster Israeli food production and ensure that enough food reaches those who need it. They have sent busloads of volunteers to help harvest produce in the Gaza border area, provided grants to farms to allow them to continue operations and employ local workers, and paid for food they would usually have collected as donations from farmers and businesses.

Forced to find creative solutions to an unprecedented problem, Leket expanded its range of aid options for those in need.

“It takes time for the government to get organized, so you have temporary poor people. They need a little push in the beginning – that could have been a debit card, or that could have been a delivery of fruits and vegetables,” said founder Gitler.

The organization also set up produce stands in hotels where evacuated Israelis were living so they could easily access nutritious, fresh food. In addition, according to data on the Leket Israel website, they have been providing tens of thousands of meals to Israelis in need each day since the war broke out.

Volunteers seen working in the Leket Israel Logistics Center (Credit: Amir Yakoby/Leket Israel).

Gitler also pointed out that this crisis is an opportunity to evaluate Israel’s dependence on foreign labor and imports and examine its priorities regarding food security.

He suggested more competitive wages for farm work to encourage young Israelis to get involved in agriculture to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign labor. He also clarified that Israel should not stop all food imports wholesale, but “we should make sure that we’re self-sufficient for what we need.”

We need to make sure that we can grow enough good healthy calories to feed the population properly

“We need to make sure that we can grow enough good healthy calories to feed the population properly,” said Gitler.

Devastating losses

About 20% of Israel’s agricultural land is located in the Gaza border area. According to a Globes article from mid-October citing Amit Yifrach, general secretary of the Moshavim Movement and chairperson of the Israel Farmers Federation, 75% of the vegetables consumed in Israel usually come from the Gaza border region, plus 20% of the fruit and 6.5% of the milk.

Meanwhile, Israel’s northern region — which has been facing increasing rocket attacks from Hezbollah in Lebanon — accounts for a third of the country’s agricultural land, and according to the Agriculture and Rural Development Ministry, about 73% of its domestic egg production is concentrated in the Galilee and Golan regions.

Those farms whose infrastructure was not damaged or destroyed still suffered a lack of available labor – about 10,000 foreign workers fled the country following October 7, and 20,000 Palestinian workers were no longer allowed to enter Israel, according to data from the Agriculture and Rural Development Ministry.

Israeli soldiers volunteer to pick oranges with farmers in the moshav of Beit Hillel in northern Israel near the border with Lebanon, on November 10, 2023, amid increasing cross-border tensions between Hezbollah and Israel. (Jalaa MAREY / AFP)

All of this contributed to the spike in food cost inflation in Israel in December, with imports doubling to 60,000 tons of fruits and vegetables, sending prices shooting up. This brought up the rate of food insecurity in Israel, defined as the inability to ensure a constant supply of food containing all the nutritional elements necessary for proper development and health.

Sue Surkes and Reuters contributed to this report.

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