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For the first time in 2,000 years of recorded history, Israel will have to import citrus fruit. Yesterday the Agriculture Ministry approved the import of 2,000 citrons, or etrogs, from Italy, mainly to foil smugglers of the fruit.

Most of the citrons, which will be flown to Israel before the holiday in five shipments, will reach Chabad communities, which favor citrons grown in Calabria, Italy.

Sneaking etrogs into Israel ahead of the Sukkot holiday is a lucrative business - citrons are one of the four species used in the Sukkot ritual.

Pre-holiday smuggling has become more prevalent in recent years. The fragrant yet inedible fruit commands a broad customer base willing to pay an average of NIS 40 apiece, while top specimens go for up to NIS 500. Customs officials nabbed three suitcases full of the knobbly fruit being smuggled in from Italy a few weeks ago.

Smuggling of citrons, like other flora, is liable to introduce pests. It creates a danger of epidemics, potentially causing irreversible damage to agriculture and indigenous fauna.

Every year Israeli consumers pay the huge cost of increased fruit and vegetable prices, because some varieties were damaged by pests introduced by smuggling. Israeli agriculture is also liable to lose its export markets, if produce is damaged by imported pests and fails to meet the standards for export.

Meir Mizrahi, director of the agricultural ministry's agro-produce regulatory service, said that the license to import the citrons was granted after careful evaluation of the risk involved, and that they will be subject to strict regulation.