What do Syrian brides and Israeli apples have in common? Both are packaged in white and among the precious few things allowed to cross the border between the countries.
On Tuesday, the International Red Cross began what has become an annual occurrence in recent years; the transport of apples grown by Druse farmers in the Golan Heights to Syria, where they will be sold in the Damascus markets. The apples come packaged in plain white boxes to hide their origin.
Israel and Syria are in the midst of a tense period diplomatically and the fear is that boxes bearing Hebrew lettering or otherwise betraying their Israeli origin run the risk of being destroyed by zealous elements on the Syrian side of the border.
The four Druse villages in the Golan Heights have close ties to their relatives in Syria and many still consider themselves Syrian nationals. The uncertain future of the Golan Heights, which could pass to Syrian sovereignty in a peace agreement, means that many of them have retained their Syrian citizenship and, unlike Druse in other parts of the country, do not serve in the IDF. Druse occasionally go to Syria to attend university.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem has been quoted as saying Damascus would consider a gradual return of the Golan Heights by Israel.
“There could be stages of withdrawal, the timing of which could involve a form of normalization,” he told The Guardian’s Gabrielle Rifkind in December. “Half of the Golan could lead to an end of enmity; three-quarters of the Golan to a special interest section in the US Embassy in Damascus; a full withdrawal would allow a Syrian Embassy in Israel.”
During the interview, details of which were published on the British newspaper’s Web site over the weekend, Muallem said issues such as Syria’s support for terrorist groups would “only be answered after withdrawal.”
The Syrian foreign minister stressed that while Damascus was willing to resume negotiations, “Israel needs to be ready to recognize that Syria is entitled to every inch of the Golan.”
He said Syria wanted Turkey to resume its mediation role in initial talks, but that the next stage “would entail direct talks with America to address the security concerns. The key issue here is US flights over the Golan in order to provide security.”
Turkish-mediated negotiations came to an end due to the IDF’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza last winter.
International Red Cross spokesman Ran Goldstein, who was at the Quneitra crossing to witness and assist in the transfer of truckloads of apples, said the practice had become a regular occurrence since it first began five years ago. Three truckloads of apples will cross the border every day, in a process that is scheduled to take 10 days and see roughly 10,000 tons of Golan Heights-grown produce pass over to Syria, he said.
“The International Red Cross is involved because we see it as a humanitarian cause,” said Goldstein. “The Druse farmers in the Golan Heights have little income and the ability to sell portions of their harvests to Syria helps them keep afloat.”
“Of course we’d like to see other things come through the border, especially people,” said Goldstein. “We’d really like to see Israel renew the allowance for family reunification, which it ended in 1992. It would be nice for fathers to be able to embrace their children who they haven’t been with in 18 years.”
The Red Cross provides the trucks, and the farmers arrange the rest of the procedure.
BahJat Brik owns apple orchards and a packing and cooling plant in the Majdal Shams village. He called the shipment of apples to Syria “a touching and beautiful thing.”
“Ninety percent of the residents of the Druse villages in the Golan Heights are farmers,” said Brik. “We predominantly grow apples and cherries, but also things like peaches and plums. Five years ago, apple prices were very low in the domestic market and we were left with large surpluses. We learned that we could get money for the produce in Syria and sought the government’s approval to export our apples to there. The government agreed as long as it was done with the aid of the Red Cross and not directly, and ever since, that’s what we’ve been doing.”
Brik explained that the arrangements with the buyers on the Syrian side were made over the phone and payments were made through family members on both sides of the border. The apples belong to two varieties: Hermon (or Star King) apples, which are red, and Golden Delicious, which, as their name suggests, are yellowish.
“We wanted to extend the trade to other produce, too, but so far we do not have enough surplus and the Ministry of Agriculture hasn’t approved it,” said Brik.
Amir Antler, the director of the northern division of the Ministry of Agriculture, said the size of shipments was constantly growing.
“It started with 4,500 tons. Last year, it was 8,000 tons, and this year we anticipate 10,000 tons,” he said.
Antler explained that the assistance of the Red Cross was necessary because it was forbidden for Israeli vehicles to cross the border.
“Normally transfers would be conducted with two trucks back-to-back, but because they have to go through the border crossing, the Red Cross trucks have to be loaded on the Israeli side, drive 300 meters into Syria and then unloaded there. Last year we had to delay the shipment because the trucks were busy providing humanitarian aid to Gaza after Operation Cast Lead.”
Antler said the process was overseen by representatives from the
Ministries of Agriculture, Defense and Finance. Every year the Finance
Ministry had to authorize a special permit for export to an enemy
country, he said. While the process had become something of an annual
tradition, it was difficult to say for sure if would be repeated next
“It’s a very fluid situation. If there is a poor harvest then the
export won’t be authorized. A lot also depends on the political
situation,” Antler said.