Palestinian Ice Cream's Big Comeback

The West Bank's biggest ice cream manufacturer, Al-Arz, buys supplies from Israel but can't sell its products to it. The scoop on a Palestinian success story that should be sweeter.

Of all the travails of our visits to the territories, this was one of the cruelest. We wandered through an ice cream factory on a hot summer's day and, with the fragrances of chocolate and other flavors in our nostrils, and cones being wrapped before our eyes, we were denied one single taste.

It's Ramadan. The nearest we get is the factory's colorful advertising brochure: a wealth of Technicolor hues praising its treats - as described on its English website: from the Abdu popsicle to the Tertufo sandwich; from the Sams cone to the Wow ice cream, from Momento to Sumer (sic).

Al-Arz is a slick, family-owned business, which produces for both the local market and for export. It employs 250 workers, in three shifts, and its directors maintain good connections with their Israeli suppliers.

They have a global food-safety certificate but no authorization from the Health Ministry. The Al-Arz factory could bust the Israeli market open, especially with its prices: With a lemon popsicle that costs NIS 0.50 and a premium ice cream cone that is NIS 3 - the prices in Israel would plummet. The Strauss factory sells its products in the territories at Al-Arz prices, not at Israeli prices - which are two or three times as high.

The city of Nablus, where the factory is situated, has come back to life. The Hawara roadblock was removed a few years ago and the ancient casbah, once the most dangerous place in the territories, is now a colorful and clamorous market, buzzing with people and merchandise. Palestinian traffic cops are out in force; it is hard to find parking.

On a hot summer's day, workers in snowsuits are loading cones onto a freezer truck at the entrance to the largest ice cream factory in the territories. The production workers wear disposable caps and gowns. Al-Arz is located in the heart of the city, in a building of several stories that is too small and not actually suitable to mass production. Five million Abdu popsicles are produced here annually, along with the other treats.

We go up half a story to the hall producing ice creams on a stick, another half story to the ice cream production hall, another half story on the way to the specialty treats, half a story down to the laboratory. The freezing rooms are in a building next door.

Steps and more steps. Narrow and steep staircases connecting the production rooms. The owners are now planning to build a spacious new factory, covering 11,000 square meters, in the eastern part of the city. The Dutch expert who will assist them has already been here; they may also open another plant abroad, in Jordan or Iraq (countries to which they are already exporting 10 percent of their output ).

In 1950, Mohammad Anabtawi - the grandfather of the current owners - opened an ice factory in Nablus, at a time when there were no electric refrigerators in the city. The grandson, Raad Anabtawi, part of the third generation there, greets us in a modest office.

The production machinery is sophisticated, made in Denmark. On deputy CEO Anabtawi's desk is a heavy sack, full of half-shekel coins - takings from the sale of Abdus - and a coin-counting machine. Anabtawi jots down his calculations in a notebook. From time to time, he pulls out some cash for a worker who comes in and gets a slip of paper in return.

The Al-Arz logo is a cedar tree (arz, in Arabic ) in the shape of an ice cream. Anabtawi says his grandfather was in love with Lebanon which is why he gave it that name. Anabtawi, 46, studied economics in the United States, as have most of his brothers and cousins, who together manage the factory. Two of the families belonging to the third generation bought out the shares of the rest of the founders' descendents. They are all members of one of the wealthiest and most distinguished families in Nablus which, as their name indicates, originated in the adjacent small town of Anabta.

Anabtawi keeps photos of two family gatherings in the office - one from 1950, the other from 2003 - several dozen men standing together. Both were taken at the same place and all of the men are dapper and important looking. The founding father's radio set still stands behind Anabtawi's chair.

They began producing ice cream in the early 1960s. They brought salt water from the Dead Sea, which has an especially low freezing point, and used it to begin popsicle production. After the occupation, even the Israel Defense Forces started buying its products, but that stopped long ago.

In the 1980s they upgraded the plant and purchased the first automatic Danish ice cream machines. In 2000, just before the second intifada, they bought even more sophisticated machinery and developed new products. Today they are manufacturing 50 tons a day: 60 kinds of ice cream, and 20 different types of popsicle.

They began exporting to Jordan in 2008 and, two years later, also to Iraq. They received plaudits at two international food fairs, in Dubai and Oman. There are already talks with international concerns like Unilever. If at one time the merchandise was transported in the private Mercedes belonging to Anabtawi's father, today there is a fleet of trucks and dozens of cold-storage rooms all over the West Bank at their disposal. In winter, the ice cream machines stand idle; they have now started manufacturing the equivalent of the Israeli marshmallow and chocolate Krembo treat, called a Dahasawir, meaning dwarf in Arabic. Its price is also NIS 0.50, but it has a short shelf life.

They buy the ingredients mainly from Israeli suppliers (one of whom once invited him to the wedding of his son - a night he will never forget ), but Anabtawi says the trade arrangement is unfair: They are allowed to buy products from Israel but they are forbidden to sell to it. His brother, the CEO, is not allowed to enter Israel. But Raad has a permanent entry permit and comes in every week to buy cones, biscuits, Styrofoam containers, milk powder and other ingredients.

He has never visited the Strauss ice cream factories but has visited factories in Rio de Janeiro and Colorado. Asked if he actually likes ice cream, he admits that he doesn't eat a lot.

The first intifada benefited the factory. The Palestinians declared a boycott of Israeli products and started buying Al-Arz. However, the second intifada was a disaster. The year 2002 was the only one ever in which the factory chalked up heavy losses. The manpower was reduced by about half as was the volume of production.

Anabtawi recalls that he'd hide in alleyways on his way to work, waiting until the tanks had left the street where the factory is sited, and then sneak in. The curfew, the killings and the economic situation did not do the ice cream market any good. But, says Anabtawi, the IDF did allow them to sell their products outside the encircled city, even during that difficult period.

There are now six different ice cream factories in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but when people in the territories say "ice cream," they mean Al-Arz. The company's billboards are scattered all over and it accounts for about 40 percent of the market.

A production worker earns NIS 1,200 a month, not including extra shifts and overtime. Professional employees earn up to NIS 8,000. Now, during the month of Ramadan, they only operate two shifts - morning and night - so employees can break the fast together with their families.

On the morning shift this week, the workers - most of them men - stood at the machines churning out products. The ices and ice creams on a stick, ice cream treats and special delicacies traveled along the conveyor belts, up and down, up and down, heading toward the cardboard cartons. And we were not able to have even a bite the size of an olive, not even a lick.

The Al-Arz production line at the antiquated factory in Nablus.
Nir Kafri