Minister said to freeze Palestinian produce imports, defying security warning

Uri Ariel’s decision decried by defense officials as ‘populist’ and destabilizing, could cost Palestinian economy NIS 1m. each day; final decision rests with cabinet, PM

Illustrative: A Palestinian youth in Jerusalem displays his produce during Ramadan, July 24, 2012. (Noam Moskowitz/Flash90)
Illustrative: A Palestinian youth in Jerusalem displays his produce during Ramadan, July 24, 2012. (Noam Moskowitz/Flash90)

Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel has ordered an indefinite freeze on imports of Palestinian agricultural goods into Israel, Hadashot TV news reported Tuesday.

The decision, taken by Ariel without consultation with other government bodies or security officials, means Palestinian farmers will no longer be able to send 280-300 tons of produce each day to Israeli sellers, costing the beleaguered Palestinian economy as much as NIS 1 million ($260,000) daily.

The move is likely not final. It is opposed by the security services and can be overturned by the cabinet and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

According to Ariel, the decision is a response to a Palestinian Authority order to Palestinian meat purveyors to stop buying lamb from Israeli suppliers — an order that violates standing agreements between Israel and the PA.

Agriculture Ministry officials at Israel’s border crossings, including the checkpoints out of the West Bank, have the authority to approve or reject agricultural products being moved through the crossing.

Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel attends a Jewish Home faction meeting at the Knesset, on January 15, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ariel’s order to those officials comes at a sensitive time in the West Bank, as Israel’s security services work with the PA to restore calm to the West Bank after a spike in terror attacks over the past week which Israel has pinned on the Hamas terror group.

Israeli security services told cabinet ministers this week that they do not expect the latest wave of terrorism to escalate to a full-blown intifada, in part because the PA was keenly interested in preventing further violence.

It is also a delicate time for Ariel’s far-right National Union party, which is part of the Jewish Home faction in the Knesset. The parliament’s two National Union MKs, Ariel and Betzalel Smotrich, threatened last week that they would leave the government’s razor-thin parliamentary coalition if the army’s response to the spate of terror attacks did not include the deployment of new roadblocks for Palestinians in the West Bank.

The demand was ignored by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Ariel and Smotrich continued voting with the coalition this week.

Critics of Ariel’s move said his latest decision was an attempt to overcome the political hit he sustained among his right-wing base when his ultimatum failed.

Palestinian women at the Qalandiya checkpoint outside of the West bank city of Ramallah, on June 23, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Security officials told Hadashot they fear a further squeeze on the Palestinian economy could have dire consequences, including leading to an escalation in violence against Israelis.

They say the Defense Ministry’s Civil Administration urged the Jewish Home party minister to wait for talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials to bear fruit, but that Ariel refused to wait.

“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 said.

Ariel was nonplussed by the criticism on Tuesday. “I won’t allow any unilateral violation of agreements,” he said. “Every violation will be met with a very aggressive response.”

Palestinian assailants, most of them linked to Hamas, carried out shootings, stabbings and rock throwing attacks throughout the West Bank over the past week.

Staff Sgt. Yovel Mor Yosef and Sgt. Yosef Cohen were killed in a drive-by shooting outside the Givat Assaf outpost in the central West Bank on Thursday. A third soldier was critically injured in the shooting, and a civilian woman was seriously wounded, though her condition later improved.

Many hundreds of people attended the two soldiers’ funerals Friday.

And on Thursday morning, two Border Police officers were lightly wounded in a stabbing attack at Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate.

Four days earlier, on Sunday, seven Israelis were wounded in another shooting outside the Ofra settlement, including a pregnant woman whose baby was delivered by an emergency C-section due to the attack but later died.

The suspected shooter in that attack was killed Wednesday during an attempt to arrest him. The army later said additional suspects may still be at large.

On Friday, a Palestinian assailant assaulted a soldier at an army post outside the Beit El settlement in the central West Bank, stabbing him and bashing his head with a rock before fleeing. He later turned himself in.

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