Syria Uprising Threatens Golan Apple Crop Export

Farmers planning to send more than 15,000 tons of apples across the northern border, hoping that reciprocal joint interests will sidestep political turmoil.

Golan apple farmers, with the picking season upon them, are fretting over their exports to Syria this year, as civil war rages there. Nonetheless, they are planning to send more than 15,000 tons of apples across the northern border to the "mother country" while hoping that reciprocal joint interests will sidestep the political turmoil.

"We're marketing our apples to Damascus," says Adel Abu Jabel, as he transports carts filled with apples to cold storage at his village of Majdal Shams. "The events in Syria are a matter of time and with God's help everything will work out," he says.

The tractor passes through the Al-Ya'afuri farmers market in the valley at the foot of Mount Hermon. Most of the stalls are attended by elderly women who cannot go out and pick the fruit. There are also jars of honey, bottles of olive oil, zaatar and other spices.

Despite Abu Jabel's confidence, the Druze farmers are worried over the bloody events - or revolution, depending on the speaker - in Syria, wondering how the apple marketing will fare this year.

This is the second apple season since the uprising began, about a year and seven months ago. But last year, due to a disease that attacked the apples, there was hardly any crop, and hence no marketing. This year the situation in Syria has deteriorated to complete chaos in some regions.

On the other hand, the apple crop is one of the best in recent years, and the Golan villages are expected to produce some 50,000 tons of apples - more than 15,000 of which they plan to market to Syria.

The apple export to Syria - or marketing to Damascus, as some Golan farmers prefer to call it - began five years ago with the International Red Cross' brokerage between the Israeli and Syrian authorities.

"People are asking what will happen," a man at one of the stalls says. He agrees to accompany us on a tour from the plantations to the cold storage warehouses and packing houses, where the apples are sorted and stored in cartons.

Some of the apple cartons are inscribed in Heberew, others have only the farmers' name in Arabic on them, so there is no confusion as to the intended markets for each carton.

Syria buys almost a third of the villages' apple crop, for a dollar per kilogram. The farmers are convinced this is in everybody's interest.

"Israel doesn't want us to flood the Israeli market with our apples," says Bahjat Brik, the manager of one of the cold storage warehouses. "Our crop is almost a third of the 150,000 tons of apples produced in Israel. On the other hand, Syria wants to strengthen its ties with the Golan and its residents, and we want to sell apples."

"Syria doesn't need our apples, they have enough but it's a way of showing support and subsidizing the Golan residents," he says. "It's a decision the Syrian government made and it's a very welcome step," he says.

Brik and the managers of the other seven warehouses in the Golan are proceeding as though nothing has changed. They are certain that in a few months the apple-marketing to Syria will begin as in years gone by.

"I understand the farmers' worry and it's legitimate," says Brik. "Many of them are anxious and ask us who will guarantee them payment for the apples, and if there's still a sovereign in Damascus."

"I and the other managers are sure the process will be carried out properly. We've already made contact with the officials in charge in the Agriculture Ministry and we'll be ready for the transfer, barring technical difficulties. After all, five Israeli ministries are involved in this - defense, interior, agriculture, finance and foreign affairs," he says.

Brik's words are interrupted by a constant stream of farmers with carts full of apples arriving at the warehouse.

"This is what keeps us going, love of the land and love of the Golan," he says. "It no longer depends on who leads Syria, Bashar or those who call themselves opposition. Both sides want to embrace the Golan so they won't be seen as a traitor. We want to do business with the mother state, not with a specific group or person," he says.

"The process will go on because it's in everybody's interest, that's our belief," he says.