A three-month ban imposed by the Palestinian Authority on the import of calves from Israel ended recently, but sources have told Haaretz that the dispute may reignite into a violent trade war due to pressures by Israeli cattle ranchers on the agriculture ministry to force the Palestinians to purchase tens of thousands of animals they failed to buy previously.
In September the PA banned cattle imports from Israel under pressure from West Bank businessmen and efforts then underway to seek a policy of economic separation from Israel. Israel saw this as a violation of existing trade agreements and responded by imposing sanctions such as denying entry visas to Palestinian businesspeople.
The PA lifted the measure two weeks ago, due to rising meat prices. As part of an agreement on resuming the imports, Israel said it would allow the PA to import calves from abroad. According to Israeli legal advisers, Israel cannot legally oppose such imports due to agreements it has signed in the past with the Palestinians.
Palestinians have purchased 4,000 head of cattle from Israeli ranchers in the past week, and Israeli defense officials see this as a positive step to prevent Palestinian unrest due to price hikes.
But when Israeli ranchers realized that the agreement did not set any limits to Palestinian cattle imports from other sources, they began to pressure the ministry to require the PA to buy the 30,000 calves they hadn't purchased during the ban, plus another 120,000 calves.
The ranchers demanded that Israel stop importing vegetables from the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a pressure tactic.
The Palestinians are important customers for Israeli ranchers. In recent years the Palestinians have bought 140,000 head of cattle from Israel, valued at about 1.5 billion shekels ($4.32 billion).
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In the past Israel has imposed measure to force Palestinians to buy cattle only from Israel, such as restricting cattle shipments by sea, quarantining them saying this was to prevent disease and restricting food and passage through checkpoints.
Israeli defense officials said that if Israel insists on the PA buying cattle exclusively from Israel and bans Palestinian vegetable supplies to Israel in response, prices could rise on both sides which could lead to violence, which the officials say have broken out in the past two years mainly due to economic issues.
The ministry informed the ranchers it would not allow 1,000 calves into Gaza, but then relented after Israeli defense officials questioned their authority to do so.
According to knowledgeable sources, the agriculture ministry and the ranchers are attempting to depict the issue in nationalistic terms, while Isareli defense officials say it is purely economic, and attempts to depict it otherwise could hobble efforts at achieving any agreement with Hamas on this issue.
Defense Minister Naftali Bennett has sided with defense officials on this dispute, and supports achieving agreements on economic and humanitarian issues. But he has avoided clashing directly with the ranchers, some of whom are influential right-wing figures.
The Agriculture Ministry said in response: “The subject is diplomatic and not economic and therefore it is being handled by the office of the coordinator of government activities in the territories, and any question on the matter should be directed there.”
COGAT responded that over the past month it has been negotiating with the PA as a result of which the ban on importing cattle from Israel was lifted, and that the PA has the right to directly import cattle from abroad.
The Israel Farmers Association reponded that the defense officials' claim that Israeli ranchers want Palestinians to buy more cattle is false. They added that the Palestinian boycott continues, and that their only demand is free trade without restrictions on either Israeli or Palestinian farmers.