Israeli Farmers Push to Maintain Ties with Gaza

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Farmers in Israel export tens of thousands of tons of fruits to Gaza. But now they're worried about calls for Israel to cut ties with Gaza. They say without that outlet, there will be a surplus in Israel and prices will plummet. Plus, they say it's important to maintain contacts if there is ever to be a peace deal.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The ongoing Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip is hurting farmers in Israel. Since Hamas took over Gaza almost a year ago, Israel has frequently shut down the border crossings in response to Palestinian rocket or bombing attacks. That has meant that Israeli food exports to Gaza have been sharply reduced, and that's costing Israeli farmers hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now some leading Israeli politicians are calling for a complete and permanent break with Gaza. Israeli farmers say that would be a disaster.

NPR's Linda Gradstein reports.

LINDA GRADSTEIN: If you buy a pound of bananas in Gaza, there's a good chance they came from Israel.

Mr. SHALOM HERTZOG(ph) (Farmer): Right now we are in the center of the biggest packing house for bananas in Israel. It's called Samach Banana. Around the Sea of Galilee it's about 60 to 65 percent of the whole banana production in Israel.

GRADSTEIN: Shalom Hertzog(ph) grows bananas, mangos and avocados in a farming community called Almagor. About a third of his bananas are shipped to Gaza - about 100 miles south.

Ilan Eshel, the chairman of the Israeli Fruit Growers Association, says Israeli farmers work with about 20 Palestinians wholesalers and they have warm relationships that have developed over decades.

Mr. ILAN ESHEL (Israeli Fruit Growers Association): Almost all of them want peace, want the relations to be OK. That's in the economic interest of both sides.

GRADSTEIN: Gaza and the West Bank represent a huge market for Israel. In 2006, the Palestinians territories imported more than $2 billion worth of Israeli products. Until 2006, buyers in Gaza purchased between 60 and 80 tons of Israeli fruit each year. But since the Hamas takeover of Gaza last year, that figure is down to about 40 tons, mostly because the crossings between Israel and Gaza are frequently closed. Israel says that's in response to Palestinians rocket and mortar attacks.

Some Israeli politicians are calling on the government to permanently sever ties with Gaza, to completely seal the borders, to cut off electricity and fuel supplies and to stop all exports to Gaza. Farmers, like Eshel and Hertzog, say that would mean bankruptcy for hundreds of Israeli farmers.

Agriculture minister Shalom Simhon says cutting all ties with Gaza is not realistic.

Minister SHALOM SIMHON (Agriculture Minister, Israel): (Through translator) I don't think this is possible and not only because of the humanitarian issue. I don't think Gaza has an alternative to Israeli exports. They have no other way of getting food, not by air or sea or from Egypt. So I expect the situation to continue as it is.

Mr. HERTZOG: And then you put the (unintelligible).

GRADSTEIN: And on Shalom Hertzog's farm overlooking the Sea of Galilee, workers from Thailand are packing bananas and avocados that he hopes will be shipped to Gaza tomorrow. He says exporting to Gaza is good business. And yet, like everything else in the Middle East, he adds, it's about politics as well.

Mr. HERTZOG: I believe that the only way to get into some kind of normality, it's only by economical means. There is not other way. I'm not in love with anybody. I do it only because my vision is that this is the only way to do peace in this area.

GRADSTEIN: Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Moshav Almagor in the Galilee.

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