Protesting agriculture reform, Israeli farmers attempt to breach Lebanon border

Army says demonstrators made it past perimeter security fence but didn’t enter Lebanese territory; 1 said arrested; produce growers warn they will lose livelihoods due to changes

Israeli farmers demonstrate at the border between Israel and Lebanon, on August 17, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Israeli farmers demonstrate at the border between Israel and Lebanon, on August 17, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Protesting farmers tried to break through Israel’s northern border into Lebanon on Tuesday, as they continued their demonstrations against a planned agricultural reform they say will destroy their livelihoods.

Several hundred took part in the rally in the Avivim agricultural community against the planned government reform in the industry. Some of them attempted to breach the border with Lebanon and were immediately halted by security forces.

The Israel Defense Forces said in a statement that the protesters only breached a security fence along the border and did not at any time succeed in entering Lebanese territory before they were halted.

“IDF forces are deployed in the area and are assisting Israel Police in maintaining order,” the army said.

One of the protesting farmers told Army Radio that the border breach was an act of “desperation,” adding: “We have no way to talk with the decision-makers. We apologized to the security forces who came and tried to remove us by force.”

Police arrested one person during scuffles, Kan news reported.

Farmers say that by working the land along the frontier they bolster border security, and that this will be impacted if they are hurt by the government plan. They have already held several protests in recent weeks at different locations around the country.

The reform was announced earlier this month by Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman and Agriculture Minister Oded Forer, both of the Yisrael Beytenu party, who said the intention is to reduce high prices for consumers.

It was slammed by farmers who insist that it is the brokers and supermarkets that are driving up costs to consumers.

The bill is scheduled to be included in the Arrangements Law, an integral part of Israel’s annual budget plan.

Avshalom Vilan, a former MK and the current secretary-general of the Israel Farmers Union, slammed the reform plan and reiterated farmers’ claim that high prices in supermarkets are caused by brokers and sellers, not those growing the produce.

Ministers were not addressing “the piggish profits of the retail chains, who are making billions and selling agricultural produce at two to three times the price that the farmer gets, and the brokerage gaps that make prices more expensive,” he said in a statement.

Chairman of the Israel Farmers’ Federation and the secretary-general of the Moshavim movement, Amit Yifrach, said the agriculturists are being “sacrificed on the altar of brokerage gaps for which they are not all guilty.”

“We won’t let the government abandon the country’s agriculturists and citizens in the reform so that we are dependent on the kindness of importers.” he said in a statement.

Farmers reportedly have the backing of many lawmakers including those in the coalition. Coalition members from the Yesh Atid, Meretz, Labor, and Blue and White parties are all working to resolve the issues, the Globes newspaper has reported.

Israeli farmers clash with police on the border between Israel and Lebanon, on August 17, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The planned reform will gradually reduce import tariffs on most fruit and vegetables over five years, and will immediately reduce them on eggs, avocados, garlic, peas, beans, dates, pineapples and artichokes, among other produce.

In addition, Israel will recognize European standards for fruits and vegetables.

In a joint statement unveiling the plan, the finance and agriculture ministries said the reform would save Israeli consumers NIS 2.7 billion ($827 million) a year.

According to the ministries, the price of many fresh produce items has shot up by as much as 80 percent in recent years.

The reform is part of the Economic Arrangements Law, which will be included in the upcoming 2021-2022 budget. It also includes over NIS 2 billion ($613 million) in budgeting to increase productivity in the local agriculture industry.

However, farmers say that opening up the market to imports will kill the local industry, which has long been sheltered by protectionist laws and tariffs.

Liberman is reportedly eyeing other steps against supermarket chains in his bid to lower the prices of fresh produce for consumers.

At a recent ministry meeting, Liberman appeared to agree with farmers that supermarkets were driving up prices, after being presented with figures on how much some chains have made in profits over the past year during the COVID-19 pandemic, Channel 12 news reported.

The figures showed that some larger chains’ profits have increased over the past year by 50% or more. While lockdowns and other restrictions such as distance learning for school children kept many people at home, thus increasing household food consumption, Liberman reportedly still found the numbers unacceptable.

Various proposals were raised at the meeting, including breaking up some of the larger chains, Channel 12 said, though the station noted that the idea would likely be difficult to put into practice.

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