The Palestinian Authority (PA) started to block the sale of Israeli potatoes as part of a new policy to support local farmers and remove foreign produce in the marketplace, agriculture officials told The Media Line.
"We are doing this to protect the farmers because they can't sell their potatoes due to the cheaper ones the Israelis are unloading on us," said Zakaria Salawdeh, a deputy director of the Palestinian Agriculture Ministry, saying that the ban wasn't directed against Israel for political reasons.
The major cities of Nablus and Ramallah were the first to start blocking the sale of Israeli spuds with official orders being issued on Sunday to the vegetable vendors. The ban will soon encompass all of the PA areas of the West Bank.
"Actually, we are implementing the decision of the government," said Anan Atira, deputy mayor of the governorate of Nablus, adding she was signing the orders even as she spoke to The Media Line.
"There is a decision from the Ministry of Agriculture to encourage national products and the livelihood of farmers," Atira said. "There are many farms that are producing the potatoes and not even able to sell them. We are moving to protect our products and encourage our farmers."
Agriculture is a pillar of the Palestinian economy. While they export to the Arab world, the U.S. and Europe, Palestinians are trying to sell their "Product of Palestine" brands in neighboring Israel, which is a big market and no more than hour's truck drive away.
Salawdeh said the ban will expand from the first two cities and to other products. Starting May 1, the PA will bar all Israeli-grown watermelons too from being sold in the PA-ruled areas. However, he added that this was not a permanent ban but a temporary measure that would be in effect for "five or six months."
He said ongoing talks with officials from Israel would coordinate the ban.
Samir Moaddi, chief Israeli agriculture adviser to the PA, told The Media Line, that he knew nothing of the Palestinian intentions to bar Israeli produce and that it wasn't even raised during a meeting with their agriculture officials on Sunday.
"They try to flex their muscles every now and then for a few of the potato farmers, but we try to accommodate them," said Moaddi.
He said the Palestinians officially import some 3,000 tons of Israeli potatoes, but the number is probably much larger. Warehouses in Nablus are filled with Israeli-grown potatoes. "They barely grow any potatoes and if they go ahead with this [ban] they will only be hurting themselves," Moaddi said.
Ironically, Israel is working with the Palestinians to improve the quality of their farm products so they can reach new export markets. The boycott also comes as Palestinian farmers have been trying to penetrate Israeli markets but have been confounded by a reluctance from Israelis to buy Palestinian brands.
It's not that Israelis don't buy Palestinian produce. They do -- about $300 million worth last year. But it's usually unprocessed fruits and vegetables later repackaged and sold under Israeli labels.
Palestinian agriculture, which is devoted mainly to field crops, vegetables and fruit, makes up about 9 percent of its gross domestic product. Israel is the Palestinians' largest market and accounts for 60 percent of Palestinian exports. They also import about half of their agricultural inputs from Israel, including plastic for irrigation and hothouses, pesticides and fertilizers.
The latest move, which prevents Israeli farmers from selling their produce to PA vendors, is aimed at keeping the Palestinian markets from being flooded with cheap Israeli imports that stunt the local economy.
"Many Israelis are selling them without a license or even supervision from the authorities and they are dumping their products on us," said Atira, the deputy mayor of the Nablus governate. "The Palestinians will like these moves, except for the black marketers, of course."
The Palestinian ban on potatoes and watermelon is in addition to a two-year-old boycott of products from Israeli settlements in the West Bank. What started off as a voluntary ban was backed by Palestinian legislation that made working in Jewish settlements or trading in their products punishable by fines. But that endeavor was never seriously enforced and a call on Palestinians to stop working in settlements has been largely ignored since the jobs were much more lucrative.
At Barkan Industrial Zone near Ariel, the biggest Jewish town in the northern West Bank, Palestinian workers at a plastics factory say they prefer to work for Israelis because they get paid double what they would make working for a Palestinian employer.
"We don't talk politics. I come to here work," machinist Ramadan Islim from nearby Salfit told The Media Line. "We work together and for the five years I've been here there haven't been any problems. What happens outside of the factory is the business of the politicians. We are here to work. We have a home and family to support."
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