Israeli technological prowess went head to head against the Arab Spring, and won.
As a result, there is no shortage of date palm fronds (lulavim), one of the so-called four species observant Jews require in a ritual celebrating the holiday of Succot, or Tabernacles, that begins at sundown on Wednesday.
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“There are enough lulavim this year. There may even be an oversupply. You can buy whatever you want,” Meir Mizrahi, the Israeli Agriculture Ministry official responsible imported flora, told The Media Line. “We’ve succeeded in meeting demand using domestic sources, with some supplement from Jordan.”
During the week-long holiday, the Four Species – which include twigs of myrtle and willow bound together with palm fronds as well as a citron held separately – are a critical part of the synagogue service. The practice, which goes back to Temple days, is based on a commandment appearing in the Book of on Leviticus, “On the first day [of Succot] you shall take the product of myrtle trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days." (Leviticus 23:40)
Israelis are expected to buy between 600,000 and 700,000 palm fronds for the holiday this year. However, for a time it looked like many would end up empty handed.
Three weeks ago, Egypt banned the harvest and export of palm fronds from El-Arish in the Sinai peninsula, posing the problem of leaving Israel short of as many as 450,000 of the fronds. Egypt has barred exports before, but this time it gave Israel little notice and ignored appeals by the US to reverse the decision.
Relations between Israel and Egypt have grown chilly since Arab Spring protests ousted Egypt’s long-time leader, Husni Mubarak, last February. Exports of Egyptian natural gas to Israel have been repeatedly disrupted by attacks on the pipeline delivering the gas and demonstrators besieged the Israeli embassy in Cairo.
Faced with a shortfall, Israel’s Defense Ministry last week authorized the export of palm fronds from the Palestinian-ruled Gaza Strip. Gaza has been subject to a tight Israeli blockade for the past four years, including a near complete ban on exports from the tiny Mediterranean enclave.
Israel was willing to lift the blockade, but Hamas, for once had a chance to impose its own blockade on Israel and banned exports. Officially, the ban was imposed when an unspecified disease was found in one Gaza plantation.
“We decided to ban the harvesting of palm fronds in order to maintain their quality in the Gaza Strip,” Zaid Hamadah, a Hamas Agriculture Ministry official told Al-Jazeera. “In addition, there are international agreements that prohibit the import or export of diseased products.”
But growers told Al-Jazeera television the real reason is politics. Hamas refuses to recognize the Jewish state or have any dealings with it.
Israel’s Agriculture Ministry, meanwhile, rushed to assure the public there would be supplies, saying it would authorize imports from any country whose standards for agricultural inspection were adequate. In the end, Jordan – a country also experiencing deteriorating relations with Israel quietly came though with shipments totaling about 110,000.
With the Israeli harvest of palm fronds typically about 200,000 annually, there was a yawning gap ahead of the holiday. But around the time of the previous Egyptian ban, David Kenigsbuch and Nehemia Aharoni, two researchers at Israel’s Volcani Center, began developing a system for storing palm fronds.
Like Christmas trees in the West, the only market of palm fronds last for a limited time before on onset of the Succot holiday, but lulavim could only be stored for between 30 to 45 days, meaning that the harvest season was limited to a very short period before the holiday.
“We developed a special technique that preserves the lulav for up to six months. Now growers can begin harvesting as early as the spring in time for Succot,” Kenigsbuch told The Media Line. “The whole idea about this was to not be reliant on imports and help provide more income to growers.”
The technique involves other factors, such as special packaging. But the preservative is the key factor and some rabbis objected that it wasn’t kosher, Kenigsbuch said. In fact, the preservative eventually disintegrates and most rabbis therefore approve its use. For those who don’t, Kenigsbuch and Aharoni found another preservative whose only drawback is that it gives the fronds somewhat shorter shelf-life, he said.
The improved storage technique, as well as efforts to develop new varieties of date palms has encouraged growers to plant more acreage, Kenigsbuch said.
Mizrahi says prices for palm fronds are about the same as last years, or 30 shekels ($8.80) each. He said the big wholesales began locking up their supplies from domestic growers over the past few months and were ready to cope with the Egyptian ban when it came. Smaller dealers have had to rely on last-minute contracts with Jordanian growers, paying about $2 a frond, including transport and other costs.
But the lulav market is unorganized. On the retail level, it is often in the hands of teenagers and others selling the four species and other Succot necessities to make some money on the side. Mizrahi admitted his estimate is based on informal conversations rather than any survey. Dealers say the situation isn’t that simple.
Egypt palm fronds are traditionally inexpensive, but last year, say some dealers, a group of Israeli importers cornered the market on Egyptian imports and boosted prices, so year-on-year comparisons are on misleading.
One wholesaler in the Tel Aviv suburb of B’nei Barak, who asked not to
be identified, told The Media Line he bought some of his palm fronds
from El-Arish last year. This year he filled his inventory entirely with
local leaf. As a result wholesale prices are higher but for reasons of
expertise, patriotism or marketing, the dealer insists the buyer doesn’t
lose out. “Israeli fronds are bigger, prettier and more impressive,” he
A Jerusalem dealer, who also asked not be identified, said he had some
trouble sourcing enough palm frond initially but that his wholesaler
eventually came through.
“There are certain differentials [between imported and local frond] but
we bought Egyptian ones because they were cheaper, but that advantage
was broken by people buying them up last year and raising the prices,”
he told The Media Line. “This year prices are up but only very, very
slightly as far as I can see.”