A recent decision to bar the sale of Palestinian meat and dairy products in East Jerusalem is liable to worsen the security situation and give a tailwind to anti-Israel boycotts, a senior Israel Defense Forces officer has warned.
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The decision was made by Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel (Habayit Hayehudi). The warning was sent about two weeks ago by the head of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories unit, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, to senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office, the Foreign Ministry and other government ministries. A senior government official said Mordechai sent the letter after his efforts to persuade Ariel to repeal the decision failed.
Ariel’s decision, issued on March 1, banned six Palestinian food companies from marketing their produce in East Jerusalem. These factories sell some 239 tons of produce (combined) every month – mainly dairy products, but also processed meat. They have been licensed to do so since 1994.
A senior government official said Ariel plans to take even more stringent steps against Palestinian companies after next month’s Pesach holiday. But senior Agriculture Ministry officials denied this.
The Agriculture Ministry’s official reason for canceling the 22-year-old permit was that the factories do not meet Israeli standards for imported meat and dairy products, mainly due to insufficient veterinary supervision.
Back in 2010, the permit was canceled by the Health Ministry for the same reasons. But at COGAT’s urging, the health and agriculture ministries agreed then to extend the permit temporarily if the Palestinian Authority would gradually improve veterinary supervision over the factories. A senior Israeli official said the PA did in fact take steps to improve the situation, with assistance from the United States, Holland and the Israeli Agriculture Ministry.
In February, shortly before the temporary permit expired, COGAT urged the Agriculture Ministry to extend it again. But Ariel and the ministry’s director general, Shlomo Ben Eliyahu, refused.
After failing to persuade Ariel, Mordechai sent a letter to various government offices on March 16 warning that “changing a more than 20-year-old status quo” was liable to have grave consequences.
Inter alia, he wrote, it could lead to “a collapse of Israel’s legitimacy overseas,” given how many international agencies have been assisting the PA on this issue. These include the U.S. Agency for International Development, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the European Union.
Coupled with Israel’s refusal to allow more agricultural imports from the Gaza Strip, Mordechai warned, this could undermine Israel’s position when the PA’s donor states convene in Brussels on April 18.
Ariel’s decision could also spur anti-Israel boycotts, Mordechai wrote, noting that the Palestinians had already asked organizations involved in the BDS movement and various international agencies to pressure Israel by intensifying boycotts against it. Moreover, it could result in Palestinian retaliation against Israeli companies. On March 23, for instance, the PA banned sales of products from six Israeli food companies in its territory.
Finally, Mordechai said, the decision could undermine the security situation. “This step, which is liable to bring about the dismissal of hundreds of Palestinian workers, could increase the explosive potential [in the West Bank],” he wrote.
Therefore, he concluded, the permits should be extended, and at the same time, work should continue on bringing the factories into line with Israeli standards.
The Foreign Ministry is also unhappy with Ariel’s decision. Senior ministry officials said that over the last two weeks, requests for its cancelation have arrived from several key Western capitals.
“Ariel’s move is liable to be seen as arbitrary, and as one whose motivations are political rather than substantive,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said. “This causes great diplomatic damage to Israel overseas. It’s in Israeli interest for Palestinian agricultural exporting to continue. Stopping it or imposing unnecessary burdens on it only hurts us, both image-wise and diplomatically. It’s liable to encourage boycotts against Israel not just by the Palestinians themselves, but worldwide.”
Senior Agriculture Ministry officials said it wasn’t Ariel, but ministry professionals who pushed this decision. And the reason wasn’t political, but because the Palestinians have not met Israel’s veterinary and health standards, they added.
“The Palestinians promised to improve the situation, but despite all the years that have passed, it hasn’t happened,” said one. “With all due respect to diplomatic and security arguments, our responsibility is to protect the public’s health.”