The Israeli and Palestinian Agriculture Ministries agreed on Saturday night to revive some of the joint committees formed in the 1990s under the Oslo Accords, which were frozen 13 years ago with the onset of the second intifada.
The ministries also decided to join forces in establishing a regional center for agronomic cooperation.
The increased cooperation comes amid the renewed peace process and was announced as US Secretary of State John Kerry made a brief visit to Israel on Sunday.
According to the Israeli Agriculture Ministry, the decision to establish the center occurred during a meeting on Saturday night between Rammi Cohen and Adbullah Lahlou, directors-general of the Israeli and Palestinian Authority ministries, respectively.
Aiming to renew the cooperative relationship in the agricultural sector, the discussions focused on the desire to improve food quality for the Palestinian public. Because agricultural disease and pests know no borders, enhancing agriculture on the Palestinian side would likewise lead to improvements on the Israeli side, according to the Israeli ministry.
“The residents of Israel and the Palestinian Authority will benefit from a tightening of economic ties, and there is no doubt that agricultural cooperation will help ease the regional tensions by creating an economic benefit for both sides,” Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir said.
Cohen and Lahlou decided that it would be in the interest of both sides to restart some of the cooperative agricultural committees that were halted during the second intifada, such as a plant protection committee, a marketing committee and a veterinary committee, the Agriculture Ministry said. In addition, Agriculture Ministry officials will resume training Palestinian farmers and help with the transfer of Palestinian agricultural products to Israel and to export.
Although, after the intifada, the committees ceased to operate in an official capacity, “there was always cooperation,” Samir Moaddi, the ministry’s agricultural coordinator for Judea and Samaria, told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday night.
Partnerships on issues such as the spread of disease through animals and plants have continued after the intifada and through today on a per-need basis, he explained.
“There are no borders for diseases,” he said. “If you don’t treat them here, it will go there, and if you don’t treat them there, it will go here.”
Even in 2006, when Hamas was in control of the Palestinian government, agricultural experts continued to work together on a professional level, Moaddi added.
Creating the center for agronomical cooperation and reviving the committees for marketing, veterinary services and plant protection will serve to strengthen a relationship that already exists, bringing it up to the level of direct collaboration between directorsgeneral, he explained.
Veterinary services in the PA are still quite weak, and Moaddi said he hopes that the strengthened ties will bring about a much more robust Palestinian system of tending to their animals.
Through the agronomic center, marketing committee and the acquisition of Israeli knowledge, Moaddi hopes to see increases in Palestinian agricultural production.
To achieve such growth, Palestinian farmers will need to learn to make better use of minimal – and often saline – water resources. To this end, the Israeli Agriculture Ministry will conduct a seminar with West Bank farmers at the end of October to teach them how to make use of some of the new water technologies available, Moaddi explained.
The PA exports roughly 80,000 to 100,000 tons of agricultural products annually to Israel, Moaddi said, noting that these figures include products coming from Palestinian farms in the entire West Bank – Areas A (under full PA control), B (PA civil and Israeli security control) and C (full Israeli control).
The PA imports more than 200,000 tons of crops annually from Israel and exports only about 5,000 tons to other countries, he added.
The intifada had little effect on the rise of Palestinian agricultural exports to Israel, and the numbers have been steadily rising over recent years, Moaddi continued.
For example, during the shmita year of 2008 – when Israeli farms take a fallow year to rejuvenate the land – the PA exported about 100,000 tons to Israel. Moaddi expects this number to climb to more than 130,000 tons in 2015, the next shmita year.
“Cooperation in the field of agriculture is the best that it is among all the ministries,” Moaddi said. “There is a mutual interest.”
Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of the regional organization Friends of the Earth Middle East, welcomed the collaboration as “an important step,” one that he felt would “help continue building trust and cooperation and would bring environmental and economic benefits for both sides.
“We urge policy-makers to continue to leverage this narrow window of opportunity with a renewal of the political process and to work toward increasing environmental cooperation through the existence of joint projects for treating sewage hazards and water pollution,” Bromberg said. “This, among other things, is a path toward rejuvenating activities in the Joint Water Committee, whose activity has been frozen in practice for over two years.”
Bromberg was referring to the committee created during the formation of the 1993 Oslo Accords, which contains professional representatives from both the Palestinian and the Israeli sides tasked with making decisions on shared water issues.
Avraham Daniel, chairman of the New Israel Farmer’s Federation within the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce, likewise praised the decision for agronomic collaboration.
“However, we would like to emphasize that before signing such collaborations and others, we must first take care that agriculture will exist at all in Israel,” Daniel warned.
Israeli government policies in recent years have reduced the number of foreign workers in agriculture and imposed burdensome taxes and fees on farmers, he said, “bringing about a situation in which the next generation does not exist and the average age of farmers is 63. If this policy continues, agriculture will disappear within a decade from our country’s landscape.”
Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.