As the European Union adopted guidelines for labeling products from Israeli settlements in the West Bank on Wednesday, farmers in the Jordan Valley region responded with a shrug of their shoulders.
“There will be no impact on the local economies,” said David Elchaini, the mayor of the Jordan Valley Regional Council for the past seven years. “We are strong and we have a high-quality product. We’ll find another market.”
Hanan Pasternak, who has a large pepper farm near his home on Moshav Nativ HaGdud north of Jericho, employs more than 100 Palestinian workers. He said that the situation for farmers exporting to Europe started becoming very difficult four years ago.
“Palestinians [in Europe] were going to supermarkets and labeling it themselves,” he said. “It started in Scandinavia and then spread. We used to export a lot of product to Holland and England and Germany.”
Now, Pasternak said, he has a single customer: Russia.
While Pasternak found a new market, it’s not perfect. “Russia knows we have no other country [to trade with], so they know they can demand lower prices,” he said. “Also the currency has weakened in Russia.”
The Jordan Valley, the easternmost part of the West Bank, is home to approximately 7,000 Israelis in 21 settlements and 10,000 Palestinians. Agriculture is the major industry, and there are few other employment opportunities.
“Six or seven years ago, 80% of our exports went to Europe,” said Elchaini, the mayor of the regional council. But when labeling initiatives started in Europe about eight years ago to encourage boycotts of the settlements, rather than fight it, farmers just found a new market, he said.
Now Europe accounts for about 20% of the exports from the Jordan Valley. The exports that still go to Europe are things with a short shelf life, like fresh herbs. Dates, the biggest product in the Jordan Valley region, can be stored for long periods of time, so they have the widest range of markets. The biggest export partners for the Jordan Valley are now the US, Russia, India and Singapore, he said.
Inon Rosenblum has owned his farm in Moshav Naama, near Highway 60, since 1982. He said when they founded the moshav, they would go on daily trips to Jericho for shopping and banking. The Palestinian residents of Jericho said he’d never be able to make anything grow in the arid, salty land. Decades of drip irrigation, greenhouses and heavy composting have finally seeped into the earth, giving him a successful farm where he grows dates, grapes and ten kinds of fresh herbs, all for export.
Rosenblum said the recent wave of violence in Jerusalem has not touched his farm. Like most of the Israeli owners, all of Rosenblum’s 30 employees are Palestinian, except for his son, 31-year-old Gil. In recent years, critics have accused Jordan Valley farmers of exploiting their Palestinian employees, among them child laborers, whose work conditions aren’t regulated by the State of Israel. On Wednesday, the Palestinian workers refused to talk to the media or be photographed because they were worried about reaction from the Palestinian side.
‘We have daily relations with the Palestinians. What’s winning here is the economy’
“We have daily relations with the Palestinians, you won’t see us with weapons,” said Rosenblum. “We’ve been living like this since the first day. What’s winning here is the economy.”
Palestinian farmers have bought date trees from Rosenblum, starting their own farms in the past 15 years. The Palestinian territories are now the number two exporters of medjool dates, after Israel. Israeli and Palestinian dates account for 40% of the medjool dates around the world, he said. “[The EU] are trying to force us to make a solution by destroying the good economy.”
“If they believe that not buying products from the Jordan Valley means that we’ll solve all the problems here, they are mistaken, it will only make it worse,” added his son, Gil Rosenblum.
“There are 30 Palestinians getting bread for their families. They’ll be the first ones to feel the effect of the boycott, on their tables,” he added.
K. — who declined to give his full name — is a 19-year-old Palestinian worker at the Arbel Farms and Packing Plant, near the Israeli settlement of Masu’a.
“Labeling is a mistake, because workers will have a problem with it,” he said. “If products won’t be sold, where will we work? A marketing problem means a problem for us with employment.” He added that all of the people in his village work for Israelis because there are few other economic opportunities.
“They can’t pressure us with boycotts,” said Avigdor Arbel, K’s boss and the owner of the farm. “[Boycotts] do the exact opposite. We can only come to an agreement through discussion.”
Arbel said that 100% of his exports used to go to the EU, but he started moving away from there a few years ago. Now just 60% of his exports still go to Europe.
There are 14 industrial zones with 800 factories and agricultural facilities in the West Bank, Yigal Dilmoni, a spokesman for the Yesha Council of Jewish settlements, told The Times of Israel in June.
“At a time when Palestinian terrorism is running high across Israel, the EU has decided to boycott the industrial areas in Judea and Samaria which are islands of peace between Israelis and Palestinians,” the chairman of the Yesha Council, Avi Roeh, said on Wednesday.
“Businesses like these, in which Arabs and Jews work together, should be used as the gold standard for peace, not boycotted,” he said. “If the EU wants to see real coexistence, they should come and visit Judea and Samaria, then it would be clear they are labeling the wrong people.”