Druse cross border with apples

Trucks of apples to be shipped to Syria through Kuneitra over the next 6 weeks.

For almost 40 years, Baniyeh Safady has been separated from her family just kilometers away in Syria. On Sunday the 47-year-old resident of the Druse village of Mas'ada on the Golan Heights connected with her family and their country through the help of the apples she packs at a local refrigerated fruit storage warehouse. Peace Cold Storage and six other such centers belonging to Druse villages on the Golan sent 17 trucks of apples to the Kuneitra border crossing with Syria Sunday and will continue to do so every day for the next six weeks. From there, the International Committee of the Red Cross takes the apples one kilometer across the border to Syrian trucks waiting on the other side. "I'm very happy our apples are going to Syria," said Safady, in Syrian-accented Arabic, as she quickly and neatly packed the shiny red fruit into unmarked white boxes. "They are going to our family, to our loved ones, to our homeland. We can't go, but our apples can." Syria, Lebanon and Iran are countries that Israel considers "enemies," making it illegal to travel to or do business with them. Hence, the transfer of 5,000 tons of apples from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights to Syria marks an unusual collaboration of the Israeli and Syrian governments for the second year in a row. "It's a dream," said Samer Safadi, the manager of Peace Cold Storage, in perfect Hebrew. "Last year was the first year, and we didn't believe it would happen till it actually did." The reason is simple: It's a win-win-win situation for the Israeli apple farmers, the Druse apple farmers and the Syrians. Israel has too many apples and not enough buyers, said Oded Ratner, the director of apples for the Plants Production and Marketing Board. "The Israeli apple market is flooded and prices have dropped greatly." Making things more difficult is that Israel has no one to export its apples to, said Ratner. Egypt and Jordan do not import the fruit for "political reasons," he said, and it's not cost-efficient to sell them to Europe. "Syria is our only market now," said Ratner, who added that the board was subsidizing the price of the fruit to encourage its export to Syria. "This sale helps the whole group." The idea was set in motion when a delegation of religious Druse leaders from the Golan visited Syria and asked Syrian authorities to buy their apples. The Syrians agreed, and Yigal Hen, Northern District manager of the Ministry of Agriculture, arranged within a few months for all the permissions from the Foreign, Defense, Agriculture and Finance ministries. "This is good for the Jews and good for us," said Safadi. Unemployment is high among the Druse on the Golan Heights. Although many young people have university educations, they have few job opportunities in the area. Druse are prohibited from traveling to Syria, with the exception of religious leaders and university students, who must return after their studies. "The situation here is very difficult, especially since the price of apples has dropped," said Maysoon Abed al-Wali, an unemployed woman from Mas'ada, whose family has two dunams of apple orchards. "Most of the families here live off agriculture, so we're happy we can sell the fruit at a better price to Syria." It's also good for Syria. The country grows some 450,000 tons of apples a year compared to Israel's 120,000. But unlike Israel, Syria can export to the Arab and Muslim world. Moreover, the Syrian fruit freezers can only keep the apples fresh for four to five months, while the long-term fruit freezers jointly owned by the seven Druse villages on the Heights can hold fruit for one year. So Druse apple growers kept their apples in the freezers since September, and only began sending them now that the Syrian produce has been finished. The locally grown apples will likely reach farther destinations than Syria, and Israel hopes that will lead to future business. "The Gulf states will probably get the apples, and we hope that if those countries like our fruit it will open new channels for us to export," said Ratner. Syria was equally excited about the new imports, and Syrian national television aired a news item about it, interviewing Syrian officials. "We will hope that all the logistic problems we had last year will be avoided this year," said the director of the government-run Administration for Agricultural Storage and Cold Storage in Syria. But for Syrians and Druse, the apples are not just business; it is a much deeper connection. "The apples and the people and the land is Syrian and will return to Syria," Ismail Mari, a Syrian MP, told Syrian National Television. Readers of the Syrian Web site www.syriannews.com wrote in to the site about their happiness to be helping their fellow Syrians. "It's a bond between us and our people [in Syria]," said Fidaa Batheesh, 30, her white hair covering carefully wrapped around her head as she packed the apples with gloved hands. "Now we are talking through our apples."