TEL AVIV — Israeli Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel recently launched a preemptive strike against the surging prices of vegetables (mainly tomatoes) before the upcoming Jewish New Year holiday season, declaring that the ministry will grant a duty-free status to importers of tomatoes from countries that are members of the International Trade Organization.
Ariel, however, has made it clear that the ministry will not allow the importing of hundreds of tons of vegetables from Gaza, although Palestinian agriculture ministry officials and Palestinian vegetable merchants alike not that their prices are low, the quality of produce is high and passes all of Israel's health authorities' inspections.
We've seen this film before: In September 2015 the Gisha organization — a nonprofit aimed at increasing the freedom of movement between Israel and Gaza — suggested to the Israeli agriculture ministry that promoting the sale of vegetables from Gaza in Israel would address the problem of produce shortages and rising prices. The ministry declined that offer last year, even as it allowed importing from Jordan to address the shortages. That didn't help. The price of a kilogram of tomatoes surged to 12 NIS ($3.18) during the high holidays, as much as three times the price during the rest of the year.
A year ago the retail chains accused farmers of exploiting the holiday season in order to drive prices up, though the farmers blamed the produce shortage on pests and bad weather. Back then, the ministry did make an exception to allow limited amounts of vegetables to be imported from Gaza to the markets of Israel's ultra-orthodox community because of the Jewish sabbatical year in which cultivation of the fields is prohibited.
Palestinian farmer near Hebron — Photo: Dion Nissenbaum/TNS/ZUMA
While expanding the access would allow the rest of Israel's population to enjoy affordable vegetable prices during the holiday season, it would also help Gaza's economy, which is in desperate need of a boost. Although Gisha has renewed their request, the agriculture ministry will most likely refuse to accept it as it hopes that granting a limited time duty-free status to importers will drive prices back down.
In the past, Israel was the main market for Gaza's farmers, especially during the holiday season when demand would increase since Israel's farmers could not supply the local market's needs. However, since the implementation of the Israeli blockade on Gaza in 2007, there has been almost no exporting from that strip of Palestinian territory. Meanwhile, farmers from the West Bank have been selling an annual amount of almost 100 tons of agricultural produce to Israel.
After the war in the summer of 2014, Israel's defense apparatus tended to favor access to agricultural produce from Gaza in Israel in order to support the population in Gaza. From a legal standpoint, there is no problem because Gaza and the West Bank are subject to the same customs system. But while the reality in the West Bank has been one of almost full cooperation with the Israeli economy, in Hamas-controlled Gaza the situation is very different. And the Israeli public, especially during the holidays, pays the price.