Israel targets Arab farmers. Palestinians worry that West Bank olive crop will be next victim of Army's campaign to squash uprising

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Israel is putting a new spin on an old tactic designed to contain the Palestinian uprising, now in its 10th month. Since the uprising began, Israel has used ``collective punishment'' such as curfews to penalize entire communities for the deeds of young stone-throwers and anti-Israeli demonstrators.

Now the tactic is being applied through restrictions on agriculture. If used widely, the measures could devastate the economy of the West Bank.

Marketing restrictions imposed by the Israeli Army hobbled this year's harvest of the West Bank's $6 million plum and $18 million grape crops.

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Palestinians are watching anxiously to see whether Israel will also disrupt the olive harvest, beginning in October. An expected bumper crop could be worth $125 million and provide 30 percent of the West Bank's income.

``If the olive producers face any picking, pressing, or marketing restrictions, it will be a disaster for the farmers and for the West Bank economy,'' says Adnan Obeidat, a specialist on West Bank farm cooperatives.

Israel is unlikely to choose to bring the entire industry to its knees, given the probable negative public relations fallout and the need to preserve a merchant middle class in the territories, several West Bank sources concede.

``If they do it everywhere, it will attract too much international attention, but in one or 10 villages, who cares about it?'' a West Bank economist says.

Economic sanctions used by Israel to break the intifadah began with punitive measures against merchants who observed commercial strikes. They were expanded to include restrictions on the flow of outside money to the territories. The stiffest sanctions have been new collective punishments, including cutoffs of fuel and food to several refugee camps and Arab villages.

Israel's focus is now on efforts to disrupt the marketing of agricultural goods that constitute the backbone of the West Bank and Gaza economies.

``The Israelis are targeting the economic infrastructure to break the spirit of the uprising,'' the economist says.

Many villages in the northern West Bank depend exclusively on revenues from olive production. In a sector that generates 1.5 million man-hours of work, already serious unemployment problems could be exacerbated if Israel closed down some or all of the West Bank's 280 olive presses.

In his Spartan, concrete stall in Halhul's new central market, Mahmoud points to rows of hundreds of empty Styrofoam containers, silent witnesses to the marketing crisis that has been imposed on the West Bank's grape industry. Blanket closure of lucrative markets in Jordan, Gaza, and Israel has left thousands of tons of grapes stranded on the vine. Those that are harvested now compete for the tiny market of the Hebron area, sending prices plummeting.

Like other grape merchants, Mahmoud has tried to get around the restrictions by selling to licensed truckers in nearby Hebron for delivery to Gaza. But forced reliance on middlemen has subtracted from this year's already record-low profits, down 70 percent from last year, Mahmoud says.

Under pressure form the United States, Israel recently lifted its marketing restrictions on grapes, but the repeal has come too late to recoup this year's losses. Meanwhile, the usually bustling Halhul central market, built two years ago with half a million dollars of US aid money, risks becoming a white elephant.

``What I earned from the grapes only paid for the boxes,'' Mahmoud says, as he leafs through a tattered green ledger. ``If it stays like this, I'll just retire.''

Marketing restrictions have been one of several measures used by Israel to disrupt the harvesting of plums, grapes, and other crops.

For the first time merchants of agricultural products are now required to verify that back taxes have been paid before operating licenses are issued. Meanwhile, extended curfews have kept farmers from tending or harvesting crops. At the Jordan River bridge, trucks carrying West Bank produce to Jordan are being detained by Israel for days for security checks that once required only hours. The result: dramatically higher shipping costs.

``It's been my worst year ever,'' says one longtime Halhul farmer whose neatly cultivated, 12-acre tract usually produces a $10,000 profit, 10 times what he says he will earn this year.

Israeli officials say Halhul has been singled out for collective punishment for its role in the intifadah, in which more than 280 Palestinians have died. Strategically located along the main highway between Jerusalem and Hebron, the town has been a gathering point for youngsters who stone Army vehicles and the cars of Jewish settlers.

``We will not accept a situation in which villages or areas riot ... and then be able to act as though nothing had happened,'' Maj. Gen. Amram Mitzna, head of Israel's Central Command, warned Thursday on Israel television. ``This was the policy during the plum harvest and during the grape harvest. It will also be in effect during the olive harvest.''

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