"75% of Israel's vegetables are from farms bordering Gaza"

Rocket interceptions over farm in Eshkol Regional Council  credit: Reuters
Rocket interceptions over farm in Eshkol Regional Council credit: Reuters

Farmers in the Gaza Strip border region can't reach their crops, and complain of broken promises by the state.

Over a week has gone by since the horrors perpetrated in the communities bordering the Gaza Strip, and the dimensions of the catastrophe are still far from being fully clear. On the economic front, it’s hard to quantify the damage. The only description about which there is no disagreement is that the losses are huge, and could scupper whole industries. Agriculture is one of these.

The area surrounding the Gaza Strip is known as "Israel’s vegetable patch". According to figures supplied by Amit Yifrach, general secretary of the Moshavim Movement and chairperson of the Israel Farmers Federation, 75% of the vegetables consumed in Israel come from this area, plus 20% of the fruit, and 6.5% of the milk. There are also chicken runs, cattle farms, and fish farms.

All these sub-branches sustained severe blows in the events of last week. Farmers and farmhands were murdered, fields were set on fire, cattle and poultry were left uncared for, and in the first hours of the fighting there were also severe problems in the water and power supply, causing further harm to animals and produce.

"There is serious disruption to our ability to work and harvest agricultural produce in these areas, and we need workers," Yifrach, a member of a farming family in Moshav Ohad, explains. "Of course we evacuated most of the Thai workers out of the border zone, certainly those who asked to leave. We put those who wanted to work in touch with other farmers in the center of the country."

The labor problem and logistical difficulties arise in every conversation with farmers in the area. "What is happening at the moment is that there is produce, but it’s impossible to reach the fields, the army won’t allow entry," says Yaron Solomon, head of the economic department of the Framers Federation and owner of an avocado plantation and an orchard at Moshav Dekel in the Eshkol Regional Council.

Solomon explains that the avocadoes need to be harvested now, and that there is also a transport problem. "Many truck drivers are not prepared to come to the area," he says. "And even if we were given two or three hours a day to harvest produce, there are no workers. The orchard only needs to be harvested at the end of December, but it also needs tending. As soon as you are unable to bring in crop spraying planes, for example, the crops are damaged. All the field crops: carrots, radishes, onions, zucchini, and cucumbers, everything will be lost.

"Now is the time to plant tomatoes. If we don’t plant now, in a few months’ time there’ll be a shortage of fruit and vegetables, and of plants. Agriculture isn’t a screws factory. There’s a chain of things in which one thing entails another."

The Ministry of Agriculture has made clear in a number of official announcements that it is fully committed to supporting the industry, and a few days ago it published a procedure for providing financial support for recruiting workers and for their accommodation, food, and transport. "I allocated NIS 2.5 million for that," says the director general of the ministry Oren Lavi. The ministry also approved the stationing of 90 new mobile air-raid shelters at farms in the Gaza Strip border area.

Israel’s farming industry in general, and farming in the border area in particular, have been through tough times recently. Besides the incendiary balloons from the Gaza Strip, military campaigns, and the Covid pandemic, the industry has had to cope with the government’s decision to cut import duties. "This reform mainly hurt produce in the Gaza border area, and fruit on the Golan Heights and in the Upper Galilee," says Yifrach. "Unless the State of Israel stops the cuts in import duties or gives the support that was promised, we’ll be in a disaster in which there will be no agriculture in the Gaza Strip border area at all."

Farmers were promised NIS 770 million in support as part of the import duties reform, but Solomon and others claim that they have never received it. "If they cut import duties and protection of local produce, and at the same time there is no significant support, because all that they are proposing is mockery of the afflicted, Israel will find itself at the mercy of the importers."

Lavi agrees, and says that his ministry has been in long, exhausting talks with the Ministry of Finance , which has yet to transfer the routine support promised in the reform.

"There have been two rounds of import duty reductions. The farmers in the Gaza border region and on the northern border have paid the price of the reductions for two years, but have not been receiving the support that the Ministry of Finance committed to pay them in accordance with the duty reductions," he explains. "I hope that perhaps someone in the Ministry of Finance will now wake up and decide to deal with the matter and start supporting the farmers."

The government has already decided to import ten millions liters of milk a month, which is 33% of the milk market in Israel, for three months, and 50 million eggs. Lavi says that the decision to allow the imports for three months only is a compromise on the six months that the Ministry of Finance wanted. "It would not be right to put Israel’s citizens into unnecessary panic," he says.

"We’ll review the situation in a month’s time, and if we see that the war is continuing and there are shortages, we’ll examine the possibility of raising the quantities. But to open the market for six months without limitation would be a prize for the importers and betrayal of everyone who works in dairy farming in Israel."

According to the farmers, incidentally, even this is unnecessary, and the beneficiaries, apart from the importers, are the retail chains. "It’s nonsense of the first order, there are surpluses of milk," claims Solomon. "We’re not against imports; we’re in favor of controlled imports. We clearly don’t want the citizens of Israel to go short of anything, but it has to be done with some common sense."

He also warns that the collapse of the industry will lead to huge price increases, on top of what is already happening. "The people who pay the price are the citizens. The price of tomatoes at the port is NIS 0.85 per kilo, but in the retail chains it runs to NIS 10 and even NIS 15 per kilo," Solomon claims. The same thing happens with local produce, he says.

The question arises whether the population of the Gaza border area will return there after all that has happened. The answer that everyone repeats is unequivocal: Yes, if the security threat is removed. "In the end, each person will make a decision, but what is clear is that as long as there is Hamas on the other side, no-one will come back to the Gaza border region. Ultimately, the basic contract between the citizens and the state is that the state provides security, and that contract has been breached," says Neri Shotan, head of the political department in the Kibbutz Movement.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on October 16, 2023.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2023.

Rocket interceptions over farm in Eshkol Regional Council  credit: Reuters
Rocket interceptions over farm in Eshkol Regional Council credit: Reuters
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