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Pouring Oil on Troubled Waters: Israeli Co-op Exports Arab Products

January 12, 2006
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In the village of Dabouria in the lower Galilee, Hadas Lahav is visiting Mohamed Malsalha, a producer of olive oil who has nearly four acres of olive trees. Lahav, an exporter, discusses growing conditions with Malsalha in Hebrew and fluent Arabic. She takes several vials of the oil to run tests for acidity and peroxide. The results will determine whether she buys a ton of Malsalha’s oil for export.

Lahav is one of the founders of the Sindyanna of Galilee fair trade cooperative, a member of the International Federation of Alternative Trade, or IFAT, a global fair trade group.

The group is comprised of women and stresses better wages and working conditions, Jewish-Arab business cooperation, high-quality and organic products and fair prices for farmers.

“We began the Sindyanna project 10 years ago to work with the Arab [oil producing] population in Israel, and then expanded it to buy za’atar and soap from the West Bank,” Lahav explains. “Peace is not just about ending the occupation, it also means giving Arabs in Israel the same rights and opportunities as Jews.”

According to Lahav, many Arab olive growers in Israel do not have the same access to state-run irrigation as large Jewish kibbutzim and moshavim. With their resulting low yields, the Arab farmers are mostly ignored by the big producers, Lahav says.

Lahav decides to export Malsalha’s oil. There is a shortage of olive oil this year, and olive prices have nearly doubled.

Sindyanna markets oil in Japan, the United States and Australia. It would like to export to the European Union as well, but cannot due to higher testing standards.

Meanwhile, in a small, two-story building in Kafr Kanna’s bustling industrial zone, three Arab women are packaging za’atar, a spice mixture of hyssop, sesame and sumac. This batch, stacked in 44-pound burlap bags, was brought by Palestinian farmers from the Jenin area in the West Bank to an Israeli checkpoint. It was then walked through the checkpoint, placed in Israeli vehicles and brought to Kfar Kanna, where it will be divided into 60-gram bags for export to Switzerland.

In the next room, a woman is wrapping bars of soap made from olive oil, milk and honey. The soap comes from small family manufacturers in the West Bank city of Nablus, whose residents reportedly have produced it since the 18th century. The soap is exported to Europe and Japan.

In 2004 Sindyanna sold 30 tons of olive oil, 60,000 bars of soap and about three tons of za’atar. The fair trade label means that virgin olive oil is not refined or mixed with other oils, something Lahav says major producers do — especially with the current shortage — and that no chemicals are used in the za’atar and soap.

It also means farmers are paid guaranteed prices for their products and that the women employed in Kafr Kanna are paid fair wages and work in proper conditions.

“People all over the world who buy these products know they’re helping farmers and women working under good conditions,” Lahav says. “This is the basis for buying fair trade products everywhere, whether it’s food or clothing. Often the products are more expensive, but people buy for political reasons. Here in Israel, fair trade also means promoting Jewish-Arab cooperation and peace.”

Lahav believes that working in comfortable conditions — for Arab women, that often means in a room with no men — dulls the attraction of religious extremism, and that Arabs in Israel want to work.

“If I could hire 10 more Arab women here, I would have no trouble finding them,” she says, “but I cannot, for economic reasons.”.

All the women, including Lahav, receive the same salary — a bit more than the $4 per hour minimum wage — with full benefits.

At a fair trade conference in Italy, Lahav met Nazar Holte and Vera Pano, heads of the Young Women’s Christian Association in Jericho. They direct a group of women making food products there. Lahav agreed to move four tons of couscous to Haifa, for export to Europe.

“She has the export license, so she was able to help us,” Nazar explains.

On a tree-lined main street in Jericho, an oasis town in the West Bank, several women sit in the YWCA building, cutting dates and packaging soap. The group also packages meloukia, a dried spinach-like plant used in cooking chicken and meat dishes, as well as anis, za’atar, dates and mint.

“Jericho is famous for meloukia,” Nazar says. “We only buy from farmers who use no chemicals. Everything is organic.”

The group has applied for membership in the global fair trade association. For the moment, it earns no profit. The women want to work with Lahav again.

Nazar talks about the past. Her Christian family lived in Lod during the British Mandate and fled to Ramallah in 1947 when the Arabs went to war to prevent the creation of a Jewish state. It was before Nazar’s time, but she remains bitter about it.

Still, she says, let’s talk about cooperation now, not about politics.”

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