- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 8, 2005

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — In an unprecedented move, Syria said this week it will buy apples from the Arab farmers of the Golan Heights — the first time it has traded with Israeli-occupied territory.

Syria is one of the Arab world’s strongest opponents of Israel, which captured the Golan from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and annexed the plateau in 1981.

“Due to the harsh economic conditions under which our brothers in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights are suffering, and in an effort to meet their repeated demands that we buy some of their accumulated apple produce, we have decided to buy 10,000 tons of their apples,” the Syrian Foreign Ministry said on Monday.

In explaining the decision, the ministry said the fruit is “Syrian, grown on Syrian land and owned by Syrians.” The objective is “to meet the pressing demands of Syrian citizens languishing under occupation and to help alleviate their suffering.”

Israel responded positively to the decision.

“It is our hope that trade across the frontier between Israel and her Arab neighbors in the not-too-distant future will be a common event as we move forward to enhanced peace and cooperation in the region,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry said the apples would enter Syria through the Quneitra checkpoint on the Golan border, about 40 miles southwest of Damascus, under the supervision of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, which has made the necessary contacts.

The purchase will be the first economic exchange between Syria and the residents of the Golan Heights since Israel captured the plateau. The statement indicated that the deal was a one-time affair.

Hamed al-Halabi, a Syrian teacher originally from the Golan, said in Damascus on Monday that the annual apple production in the heights is between 30,000 tons and 40,000 tons. The apples are sold mainly to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, with a small proportion going to the Israeli market, he said.

“This is a necessary initiative on the part of the Syrian government to support Syrians in the Golan,” Mr. al-Halabi said.

Medhat Saleh, a former lawmaker also originally from the Golan Heights, said the Syrian decision should be seen as support for “the steadfastness of the people in the Golan in the face of Israeli occupation.”

The last round of Syrian-Israeli peace talks collapsed in 2000. Syria wanted assurances that Israel would withdraw from all of the Golan Heights and land extending down to the Sea of Galilee.

Israel refused to make such a promise and insisted that security arrangements and normalization of relations be spelled out first. In recent months, Syria repeatedly has called for a resumption of negotiations, but Israel has insisted it first must clamp down on Palestinian militant groups it harbors.

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