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Analysis: Druze Farmers in Israel's Golan Heights Sell Applies to Syria

All Things Considered: March 14, 2005

Golan Heights Opened to Trade with Syria




ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Another story involving Syria now. This one has to do with commerce. For the first time today, Syria traded with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, territory Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 war. The exchange came in the form of apples. Damascus purchased the produce from cash-strapped Druze farmers, many of whom still profess allegiance to Syria. NPR's Julie McCarthy traveled to the Golan and sent this report.

SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK OPERATION

JULIE McCARTHY reporting:

Trucks trundled across the border that separates Syria from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, bearing the fruit of what many farmers here hope will prove to be the beginning of more contacts between them and their brethren in Syria. The apples entered Syria at Quneitra, just 40 miles southwest of Damascus, an exception to Syria's long-standing boycott of the Jewish state. The produce of Nasir al-Deen Sayad Ahmed(ph) rolled across the checkpoint. The 69-year-old Syrian-born farmer said the fact that Damascus had agreed to buy 10 tons of apples from Arab farmers in the Golan, about a fourth of their crop, filled him with satisfaction.

Mr. NASIR Al-DIN SAYAD AHMED (Apple Farmer): (Through Translator) We've been waiting for this to happen for a very long time. I feel very comfortable. I feel very happy. My head is up high.

McCARTHY: Sayad Ahmed speaks just steps from the forklifts that carefully tuck the crates of fruit onto the 12 trucks that cross the border today. He wears a flowing white headdress and black tapered pants, attire, he says, that marks him as a religious man in the Druze sect. Syria considers the estimated 20,000 Druze in the Golan, most of them farmers, to be Syrian citizens.

This Druze community has been economically hit by what it says is an overabundance of apples due to a bumper crop and falling prices in Israel. Farmers admit, too, that the better-organized Israeli Kibbutzim, which also grow produce in the Golan, have outmarketed them. The Druze appealed to Israel to allow Syria to purchase their apples. As one farmer put it, `We are all one big family.' Golan resident Asad Safati(ph) helped negotiate the $5 million deal that he says took months to close.

Mr. ASAD SAFATI (Resident, Golan Heights): It's a really historic moment, and it might be black tomorrow, so you never know. Nobody can guarantee it will continue as we wish. Still, we are in the Middle East.

McCARTHY: To execute this first trade of its kind in decades, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Israel worked with the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN. The United Nations Disengagement Observer Forces deployed along the border supervised the day's activities. The ICRC provided the trucks, calling it a humanitarian gesture. Israel's Mark Regev said the purpose was to assist the Golan farmers. This is not a political move, he said, and has nothing to do with the political process.

Recent anti-Syrian demonstrations in Lebanon have heightened tensions in the region and made any rapprochement between Syria and Israel seem evermore remote. Given events next door, farmers expressed surprise that today's deal went through, but clung to the hope it was a first step toward better Israeli-Syrian relations. Again, Golan farmer Sayad Ahmed.

Mr. AHMED: (Through Translator) We definitely think there's an opportunity here. We have hope, and we see today's trade as a key for better cooperation between the two states.

McCARTHY: If all goes to plan, the apple export will continue over the next month. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, in the Golan Heights.



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