- The Washington Times - Friday, August 31, 2007

TEL AVIV — Israel faces pressure from ultra-observant Jewish communities to ease a blockade of the Gaza Strip so they can import food and thus remain faithful to the tradition of not growing or consuming food cultivated on Jewish land once every seven years.

Except for humanitarian shipments, Israel’s army has kept its commercial crossings into Gaza sealed for the past two months, refusing to deal with officials linked to the militant Hamas-led government.

With the onset of the Jewish New Year in less than two weeks, religious Jews will observe “shmita,” a practice spelled out in the Torah requiring that farmers in the biblical Land of Israel “rest” agricultural fields every seven years and donate whatever grows in the “shmita” year to the needy.

“It’s a big economic issue here. If they don’t import, there might be a shortage of fruit and vegetables for anyone who wants to adhere to the shmita rules. Which means bringing it from Gaza or importing from other places,” said Aaron Katzman, a columnist with the ultra-religious newspaper Hamodia.

Since Hamas’ violent takeover of Gaza in June, nothing has been exported from Gaza save for seven truckloads of potatoes that passed through the Kerem Shalom crossing earlier this week.

It is difficult to underestimate the importance of agriculture for Palestinians in Gaza, where more than half of the population depends on outside aid to survive.

Farms in the blighted coastal strip account for 10 percent of the territory’s economy, supporting more than one in six of its 1.4 million residents.

Though Israel’s army says opening Gaza’s main commercial crossing is too much of a security risk, both Palestinians and Israelis acknowledge that managing trade with Gaza is ultimately a political decision.

Israeli army officers, Israeli produce distributors and Gaza farmer representatives are expected to meet next week, said Ahmed Shaafi, who heads one of Gaza’s four agricultural associations.

“We have no life here in the Gaza Strip. The [Israeli] army told us that they would do their best to solve these problems for the farmers,” Mr. Shaafi said.

“Israel will not make anything with Hamas in Gaza Strip. We are not with Hamas or Fatah in the Gaza Strip. We are working to solve the problem of the farmer,” he said.

The rules for observing shmita vary. Some rabbis ruled that selling crops grown in Israel is permissible as long as they come from land not owned by Jews.

This allows farmers to transfer ownership of their estates to Arabs for the year. But ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities are less likely to accept the loophole, preferring instead to import produce.

Rabbi Stewart Weiss, who heads a Jewish outreach center in the Tel Aviv suburb Ranana, said most Orthodox Jews in Israel are wary of purchasing goods from Gaza.

But the ultra-religious, or “Haredi,” Jews want produce from outside Israel and are not concerned about its source or the political ramification, he said.

Gaza farms specialize in strawberries, cherry tomatoes, red peppers and carnations, and their proximity to Israel makes its produce potentially the cheapest to import compared with Jordan and Europe.

When high season starts in November, each day of export activity is worth at least $450,000 to the Gaza economy.

“I can’t think of a better opportunity for Israeli and Palestinian cooperation than letting Gaza farmers sell their goods to Israeli Orthodox Jews who can’t consume local produce,” said Sari Bashi, director of Gisha, a legal watchdog on Israeli restrictions of Palestinian movement. “It would be a shame for both religious Jews and the Gaza farmers to lose.”

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