Israel blocks Palestinian exports amid trade crisis

Updated 10 Feb 2020

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Jiftlik (West Bank): A Palestinian worker checks the expiry date on fruit packages.—AFP
Jiftlik (West Bank): A Palestinian worker checks the expiry date on fruit packages.—AFP

RAMALLAH: Israel on Sunday imposed a ban on Palestinian agricultural exports, in a move the Palestinians blasted as a “dangerous” escalation in a five-month trade war.

“Starting from today ... export abroad of Palestinian agricultural product through the Allenby crossing will not be allowed,” COGAT, the Israel defence ministry unit that oversees civilian activities in the Palestinian territories, said in a statement.

The Israeli-controlled Allenby border crossing between Jordan and the occupied West Bank is the only route through which Palestinian goods can reach foreign markets.

Moein Ashtiyeh, a Palestinian farmer in the fertile Jordan Valley region, said he had 400 tonnes of dates set for export to Britain, Germany and Turkey, which he is currently unable to sell. “If I can’t export these dates, the Israeli action will cost me 10 million shekels ($2.9 million),” he said.

COGAT said the measure was in response to a Palestinian decision in October to stop importing calves from Israel. That boycott “dramatically hurt Israeli cattle breeders”, COGAT said.

The Palestinians said at the time that they wanted to decrease their dependence on the Israeli market.

The trade dispute has escalated since US President Donald Trump released his controversial Middle East plan last month, which has been rejected by the Palestinians as overwhelmingly pro-Israeli.

Last week, Israel’s defence ministry halted all imports of agricultural products from the West Bank to Israel, cutting the Palestinians off from a market that accounts for roughly two-thirds of their agricultural exports.

The Palestinian Authority responded by banning the import of Israeli produce, soft drinks and mineral water.

Palestinian agriculture minister Reyad Attari said that Israel’s latest block on goods crossing the Allenby Bridge “violated all the agreements” between the two sides. “It’s a very dangerous action,” he said.

COGAT stressed that its ban would be reversed “the moment the Palestinian Authority took back its decision to harm cattle trade with Israel and the free market”.

Palestinian economic analyst Nasser Abdel Karim said that despite the rising tensions neither side is seeking a full-blown trade war.

Unrest in the West Bank has surged since Trump unveiled his controversial peace proposal and the Israelis want to avoid any further “outbursts of violence in the Palestinian territories and ensure calm,” Abdel Karim said. Among the Palestinian leadership, “there is no will for economic confrontation,” he added.

But even if both sides are keen to avoid major economic hostilities, Palestinian vegetable producer Nasser Abdel Razek said he remained worried. “This is potato and onion season,” he said. “If I can’t export I will lose a lot of money.”

Warning over West Bank moves

A US envoy warned Israel on Sunday not to declare sovereignty over West Bank land without Washington’s consent, pushing back against calls for immediate action by ultra-nationalists within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition.

US President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan envisages Israel keeping key swathes of the occupied territory where Palestinians seek statehood. But the question of timing has opened up a rare rift between the allies.

Netanyahu initially pledged a speedy “application of Israeli law” — de facto annexation — to Jewish settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley. But he was forced to backpedal after the White House made clear it wanted a US-Israeli mapping process — likely to take weeks or more — completed first.

The Palestinians, for their part, have rejected the Trump plan as a non-starter.

With Defence Minister Naftali Bennett and other Israeli ultra-nationalists urging an immediate cabinet vote on sovereignty in the West Bank, the US ambassador intervened. “Israel is subject to the completion [of] a mapping process by a joint Israeli-American committee. Any unilateral action in advance of the completion of the committee process endangers the Plan & American recognition,” envoy David Friedman tweeted.

In a separate speech, Friedman elaborated that his message was “a little bit of patience, to go through a process, to do it right, is not something which we think is too much to ask for”.

In parallel, Netanyahu invoked the White House position. “The [US] recognition is the main thing and we don’t want to endanger that,” the premier told his cabinet on Sunday.

At the JCPA, Friedman said the mapping process was unlikely to be completed before March 2. But he held out the possibility of implementation even if the election does not produce a clear winner, as was the case twice in the last year.

“Any unilateral step is rejected whether it is taken before or after the election,” said Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “Facts can’t be created on the ground and they will never become a reality.” “The only thing we can accept is the Palestinian map on the 1967 borders,” Abu Rdainah added.

Published in Dawn, February 10th, 2020