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The Quneitra crossing into Syria opened yesterday to let through the first apple shipment of the year, in what has become an annual tradition since it began as a special arrangement six years ago.

The sale of Golan apples in Syria began in 2004, at the initiative of the Israeli Agriculture Ministry. The move came in response to a request by Druze farmers in the Golan Heights, because there were too many apples in the Israeli market.

The ritual has taken place every year since then, with the exception of 2008 when the apple harvest was meager, and it helps the Druze farmers find buyers for their produce. The operation involves Red Cross trucks driven by drivers from Kenya, who bring the produce to Jordan and Syria.

Everyone benefits. The farmers find a market. The Syrians show their loyalty to Druze living in an area that was under Syrian control until the Six-Day War. And Israeli farmers get higher prices for apples on the local market.

Said Farhat, a resident of the Golan Heights village of Buqata, who coordinates the apple shipments to Syria, thanked the Syrian president for the opportunity.

"We thank our president, Bashar Assad, who is providing support for the farmers. The hope is that there will be a free market when peace comes, without the [mediation of the] Red Cross," he said, adding "It makes me happy that they are enjoying our apples in Syria and Jordan."

The apple shipments, which began yesterday, will continue for about two months, during which about 10,000 tons of apples, mostly Starling and Golden Delicious, will cross into Syria.

This is more than double the quantity sent to Syria a few years ago, and is about 8 percent of Israel's annual apple production, of 120,000 tons.

Marianne Gasser, who heads the International Red Cross office in Syria, expressed hope that the operation would create an atmosphere conducive to addressing other humanitarian issues, such as the free movement of family members separated by the border.