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The Beit She'an Valley and a large portion of the Negev, from Moshav Ahuzam in the north to the Nirim-Mishmar Hanegev area in the south, are beset by drought, Finance Minister Roni Bar-On and Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon said Sunday. The official statement makes it possible for farmers in drought-afflicted areas who planted wheat - the product mainly affected by the dryness - or crops such as barley, chickpeas and safflower to request government compensation for their losses.

The Drought Law states that the compensation must be between 80 percent and 100 percent of expenses for growing wheat in the Negev and the Beit She'an Valley, deducting any produce that was harvested. This year the maximum compensation for a dunam of wheat is likely to reach NIS 230.

Uzi Matityahu, an Agriculture Ministry official in charge of wheat production, said that with the exception of the 1999 drought, this year's problems are the worst to hit the Negev since the desert was settled. He said some of the land was not harvested at all because there was no produce, while other farms yielded 50 kilos per dunam instead of an average of 200 kilos.

The Agriculture Ministry would not predict the scope of compensation, but various estimates indicate that it could cost tens of millions of shekels. The Tax Authority estimated that the government would not pay more than NIS 20 million in drought compensation.

Farmers in the Galilee said the drought compensation does not begin to cover the actual damage across the country. They said in a statement that this year's low rainfall has cost Galilee farmers hundreds of millions of shekels.

Gabi Cuniel, coordinator of the Kibbutz Marom Golan orchard, said this year was the worst of the past three drought-afflicted years in the northern Golan Heights, costing Golan farmers as much as NIS 100 million. He said there were only 500 millimeters of rain in the northern Golan this year, compared with a multiyear average of between 900 millimeters and 1,200 millimeters.

"This is an agricultural area that relies primarily on rainwater, and therefore the damage to agriculture in the Golan is particularly severe," said Cuniel. He added that Golan farmers have been forced to cut down on fruit grown in the orchards to save water.