Palestinians, Israelis wage trade war

PA agriculture minister accuses Israel of violating economic protocol signed as part of Oslo Accords

Palestinian farmer picks tomatoes to be exported into Israel, on a farm in Deir El-Balah in the central Gaza Strip. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Palestinian farmer picks tomatoes to be exported into Israel, on a farm in Deir El-Balah in the central Gaza Strip.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A Palestinian Authority ban on importing certain Israeli products into the West Bank went into effect on Thursday morning, with the PA saying the move came in retaliation for a decision taken last week in which Israel began barring Palestinian produce from its own markets.
The Palestinian ban includes fruits, vegetables, bottled water and soft drinks.
PA Agriculture Minister Riad al-Atari says Israel is seeking to starve the Palestinian people and threaten their food security. He notes, too, that Israeli authorities have prevented shipments of Palestinian olive oil and dates from reaching ports and border crossings for export abroad, saying these steps violate signed agreements.
"These Israeli moves against our products are in violation of the Paris Protocol, which states that Palestinian exporters have a right to use Israeli ports freely," Atari said.
The Paris Protocol is an agreement signed in 1995 between the Palestinians and Israelis as an outgrowth of the Oslo Accords to govern economic relations in what was supposed to be an interim period prior to full peace and Palestinian statehood.
Palestinians say the ban on Israeli products is meant to boost the local agricultural sector and is part of Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh’s policy to disengage economically from Israel.
The Israeli ban on Palestinians goods was initiated by Defense Minister Naftali Bennett last Friday in response to a PA decision taken in October to halt the purchase of calves from Israel.
Israeli cattle farmers say that decision has harmed them and led to financial losses, but Atari says Bennett's move was motivated solely by politics.
"This issue is purely political,” he stated. “The date for the Israeli election is approaching, and therefore the Israeli minister of defense, and not the minister of agriculture, came out and announced the ban on Palestinian agricultural products. It is strange that the minister of defense interferes in such a topic."
Arab and international mediators are working round the clock to help reach a satisfactory resolution to the trade war, according to The Media Line’s sources. A Palestinian source who asked not to be identified says a list of Palestinian "requests" was delivered to the Israelis on Thursday, but was rejected.
Palestinians insist that they are not boycotting Israeli meat. They simply do not want to be limited to buying Israeli cattle, preferring the opportunity to also import freely from abroad. They rely heavily on Israeli markets to move their products, and the trade balance tilts overwhelmingly toward Israel.
While Palestinian trade with the world exceeded $7.5 billion in 2018, bilateral trade between the Palestinian Authority and Israel hovered around $4.5 billion, Mohammad Khabeisah, a Palestinian financial expert, told The Media Line. He added that Palestinian imports from Israeli markets accounted for $3.7 billion of this.
"I believe that the Palestinian economy will be more affected [by the bans] because it is a small economy," he said, adding that if these steps continue, "their effect will appear within months if not weeks."
Khabeisah maintains that the Palestinian economy is no match for Israel’s, adding that the agricultural sector "suffers from weak government support."
He points out that Palestinians send $55 million in fresh produce to Israel each year while buying more than five times as much from the Israeli side, noting that an additional $100 million is spent on bottled water and soft drinks.
"There may be alternative markets such as Jordan, the Gulf states and Egypt, but this mainly depends on who controls the Palestinian borders and crossings,” he said.
“As long as Israel controls the borders and crossings, it can issue a future decision prohibiting the export of any Palestinian product, whether agricultural or manufactured,” Khabeisah stated. “As long as the Palestinian does not have control over his crossings, proposing alternative markets will be difficult."
Jamal Hamad, secretary-general of the Palestinian Farmers Union, told The Media Line that that in the long run, "the economic disengagement will be beneficial" to the Palestinian economy, though in the short term, it will be the Palestinian farmer who suffers.
“The Palestinian farmer is under occupation and must endure this temporary pressure," he said.
He added, however, that the PA government should intervene on the side of the farmers.
"It should have programs to encourage the purchase of local produce [and] support Palestinian farms, and find new markets for the Palestinian product to replace the Israeli market," he said.
Atari agrees.
"We have a plan and we are aggressively pursuing new markets and ways to help our farmers," he said.
Thaer Abu Hashem, a local produce trader in Ramallah, told The Media Line that if the current situation continues, it will have a negative impact on everyone.
"It will affect me and all merchants and people here,” he said. “There are many goods that are not available to us locally. Domestic production cannot fill the void."
Israel’s Defense Ministry says the Israeli ban will be reconsidered if the PA lifts its own restrictions.
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