The local wholesale lulav market is in uproar because a single importer, who has managed to corner the local market, is set to charge five times the normal wholesale price for the palm fronds used on Succot.
Avi Belali, of Moshav Segula near Kiryat Gat, accomplished the impossible, said local wholesalers. While hundreds of lulav traders and their customers have failed in their attempts to put pressure on Egypt to loosen the ban on the export of lulavs by enlisting politicians, diplomats and Jewish interest groups both locally and in the US, Belali succeeded in importing 250,000 lulavs.
Instead of charging the accepted $1 per lulav to wholesalers, Belali has let it be known that he will charge at least $5.
Lulav traders said that after factoring in other costs, retailers need to ask for at least twice the wholesale price to break even. "I estimate that retailers will ask between $12 and $20," said one wholesaler.
Meir Mizrahi, head of the Agriculture Ministry's Plant Protection and Inspection Services and Plant Quarantine Service, confirmed the reports about Belali.
"Belali provided us with the documentation needed to prove that the lulavs are from El-Arish," he said. "We checked his documents via the Israeli Embassy in Cairo and everything was in order. We check the source of every lulav that enters Israel because we are concerned that pests, diseases and fungi will cause irreparable damage. I do not know how Belali did it, but he managed to get those lulavs out of Egypt."
Wholesalers blamed Belali for taking advantage of the situation. "It is outrageous. He is ripping people off," said one.
Lulav importers and distributors are known for using less than equitable methods to obtain the highest prices possible. Wholesalers tell how lulav shipments are delayed by police after being "tipped" that they contain drugs. After the thorough search is completed, Succot is over and the lulavs are worthless. Other wholesalers tell of "mysterious" delays at Egyptian customs after key officials have been paid off. Threats of violence are used to coerce dealers to buy or not to buy according to the whims of the big importers.
"Selling lulavs is a shady business," Mizrahi said.
"It attracts all sorts of people. Some are truly honest. But others are criminal types."
Lulavs are used during Succot to perform the biblical commandment to "take... branches of palm trees" together with willow branches, a citron and myrtle branches and "rejoice before the Lord your God."
In a halachic opinion published this week, Rabbi Ya'acov Ariel, chief rabbi of Ramat Gan, ruled that due to the shortage of lulavs, fronds from canary date trees, which are prevalent in Israel, could be used. "The dates are slightly smaller, but only experts can tell the difference," wrote Ariel, "in times of necessity we can rely on these trees."
Ariel said that there are many precedents in Halacha for the intervention of rabbis to fight profiteering.
In a normal year, Egypt exports 1 million date tree fronds, half goes to Israel and half to the US.
Mizrahi said that this year in addition to Belali's 250,000 lulavs, another 150,000 will be imported from Jordan and he expects another Israeli to import 100,000 additional lulavs from Egypt.
But Belali, more than any other single lulav dealer, is seen by wholesalers to be poised to profit the most this year.
In the past, Egyptians put up with the lulav market because it was a source of income for many of its citizens. But the explosion of the lulav market to the point where El-Arish was exporting 1 million lulavs a year was too demanding for Egypt's palm trees, so last year, after Succot, the Egyptian Agricultural Ministry prohibited export of the branches.