The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Israel blocks West Bank exports as trade tensions rise, along with towers of unsold produce

Vegetables are stacked in readiness for buyers at a wholesale market in the West Bank city of Nablus on Feb. 4. (Alaa Badarneh/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

JERICHO, West Bank — The market in this West Bank city always bustles with activity, but the chaos has reached an unusual pitch in recent days. Boxes of unsold eggplant, tomatoes and zucchini are stacked high, these towers marking a new front in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

An escalating trade war has frozen much of the commerce between the two sides, squeezing an already fragile West Bank economy.

The dispute began to simmer in the fall when Palestinian officials curtailed the import of Israeli beef into areas under their control. Israel this week responded, blocking the import of Palestinian produce, closing access to the Arab growers’ biggest market.

Then, after the Palestinian Authority retaliated by barring a range of Israeli goods, Israel went even further, stopping the shipment of West Bank produce into Jordan, a transfer point for export on to regional and European markets.

Produce is rapidly piling up in glutted West Bank markets, causing prices to plummet and pressuring already indebted growers. Economic analysts say if the barriers aren’t lifted by March, farmers will miss their chance to ship dates, the largest export crop, to Europe before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, imperiling a season’s worth of profit.

“We are completely shut off. It’s a catastrophe,” said Jaffar Isaid, a fruit and vegetable distributor in the West Bank city of Jericho. Outside the dusty windows of his offices were stacks of cabbage, carrots and other produce, inventory he would normally ship into Israel and Jordan via six trucks a day. Business is down by 50 percent, he said.

Isaid expressed anger at the Israelis who are blocking his goods, but also at Palestinian officials who he said have so far done little to help struggling growers and merchants. Instead, Palestinian inspectors come to the market every day to make sure sellers are not importing new products from Israel.

“Yesterday, he counted my cousin’s ten boxes of [Israeli] apples and said, ‘Tomorrow if you have 11 boxes, you will go to jail,’” Isaid said. “Israel and the PA fight each other, and it is we and the farmers who get hurt. I see no future for our work.”

Trade ties have been one of the few durable links between the two sides in recent years. Goods have continued their steady flow through the checkpoints, largely weathering decades of violence and go-nowhere negotiations. Sales to Israel, which topped $88 million in 2019, account for 68 percent of the West Bank’s produce exports, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture.

But trade has become more contentious in recent years. The European Court has upheld rules barring products from Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank from being labeled “Made in Israel.” And a growing boycott, divestment and sanctions movement agitates for embargoes against companies doing business with the Israeli settlements. Israel, which views the BDS movement as rooted in anti-Semitism, reacted furiously this week when the United Nations released a list of such companies. 

Last October, the Palestinians upended a long-standing arrangement of buying some 120,000 head of beef cattle a year from Israeli ranchers who buy calves from other countries and fatten them before selling to West Bank butchers.

Palestinian officials, as part of efforts to wean themselves off Israel’s economic dominance, said they want to buy the animals directly and began restricting imports from Israel, which provides about 90 percent of the Palestinian beef supply.

“We have only one goal, to import and export freely without going through an intermediary,” Palestinian Economy Minister Khaled al-Osaily said in an interview. “This is our right.”

The signing of the first Oslo Accords on Sept. 13, 1993, was seen as a major step toward peace in the Middle East. Two 25-year-olds explain its legacy. (Video: Jon Gerberg, Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)

The move caught Israeli cattle growers off guard and outraged the Israeli government, which viewed it as a violation of free-trade agreements embodied in the generation-old Oslo peace accords. In December, negotiators seemed to head off a trade war with an agreement to partially ease the restrictions. But that deal collapsed, with each side blaming the other for its failure.

Israeli cattle growers mounted protests, including by grazing their animals outside the home of Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, who has authority over border crossings with the West Bank.

The spat escalated in February when Bennett ordered checkpoint guards to block all Palestinian produce from entering Israel. “They’re causing an entire industry and hundreds of ranches to collapse,” Bennett said in a statement after ordering the embargo. “I want to see a free market … but a boycott will be answered with a boycott. My patience has ended.”

Bennett is running for reelection in March’s national parliamentary vote as the head the right-wing Yamina alliance, and critics accused him of exploiting the trade dispute for political gain.

“It’s just an election game,” Osaily said. “We don’t want escalation. But for every action there has to be reaction.”

Bennett’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Political observers warned that the standoff threatened to heighten tensions that flared when President Trump released his Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, which Palestinians condemn as biased toward Israel.

Last week, a car driven by a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem rammed a group of Israeli soldiers, injuring 12. Balloons with small explosives attached have been launched almost daily into Israel by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, and clashes with Israeli forces in several West Bank cities have grown violent.

“Things are more expensive maybe, but I worry more that this is not the time to make things more dangerous,” said a Palestinian woman shopping for tomatoes in a Jerusalem market where the price has ticked up in recent days. She declined to give her name.

Palestinian leaders have warned that farmers, butchers and merchants might have to weather a difficult stretch in the name of “detaching” from dependence on Israel. Osaily acknowledged that vendors have been told they face penalties for ignoring the restrictions.

“Everyone should respect the cabinet decision,” he said.

But not everyone does. Black market smugglers who can get goods into Israel have seen demand for their services jump as the legal trade avenues have closed.

At the Jericho market, a smuggler who asked to be identified only as Abu Karam would not talk in detail about his methods, only that he had access to “big cars” and kept careful track of shift changes and meal times at the checkpoints.

“Now I’m making more money,” he said. “I am the only way to get the product to the other side.”

A farmer in the same market, however, said he was suffering. Hassan Armania, 50, said that since the border crossings have been blocked, the price he gets for a box of eggplants has fallen from about $14.50 to $5.75.

“I cannot cover my debt now,” he said. “This is not my fight, but I think I am the one who will wind up in jail.”

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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