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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 September 2007, 18:12 GMT 19:12 UK
Israel prepares for 'fallow' new year
By Martin Asser
BBC News, Jerusalem

In a place where who owns the land can literally be a life or death issue, a remarkable thing happens this week.

An Israeli farmer loads boxes of dates onto a crate
Israeli farmers worked hard to get the harvest in before the shmita

Thousands of Israeli farmers willingly sign their land over to rabbis, who then sell it to Palestinian Arabs for just a handful of shekels.

It is not some massive u-turn by the Zionist movement, but rather a convenient fiction to get around an inconvenient aspect of Jewish holy law known as the "shmita".

Wednesday evening sees Israel celebrate the start of the Jewish new year. This year, though, is a shmita year, or sabbatical year, one year in seven when Jewish-owned land in the Land of Israel must be left fallow.

Before that time, Jewish farmers agree symbolic year-long sales of their land to non-Jews, if they want to continue growing crops and selling kosher produce to the Israeli market and for export.

But not everyone is happy with the temporary sales and Israel's growing ultra-Orthodox community are pushing hard for much stricter implementation of the shmita law.

Loopholes

Hundreds of metres below sea level in the Jordan valley, territories occupied by Israel in the 1967 war, lie some of the most productive fruit and vegetable growing areas controlled by Israel.

In the Jewish settlement of Tomer, north of Jericho, Danny Maimoun has built a $2.5m (1.25m) operation selling sweet peppers and spring onions.

Danny Maimoun
It would be very nice to rest for one year but it is not possible for us
Danny Maimoun

After 30 years in the business, for him the seven-yearly shmita is a bit of joke.

"Every seven years we 'sell' our land for one year to the rabbis," he says.

"Afterwards they 'sell' all the land that they supposedly bought from us to non-Jews, maybe to Arabs, for one shekel.

"It would be very nice to rest for one year but it is not possible for us," he says with a smile. "Eighty percent of my business is export to the UK and Europe and we could lose our clients."

Israeli farms tend to be either secular or religious in outlook, whether they are within settlements deemed illegal under international law (a view disputed by Israel) or in legitimate farming communities within Israel's pre-1967 borders.

Tomer is avowedly secular, and while Mr Maimoun says he does not mind jumping through a few religious loopholes, his neighbour, nursery supplier Talma Agmon, says she does not like what is happening.

The more powerful the rabbis get the more aggressive they get. If the government lets them, they will do more
Talma Agmon

She expects her houseplant business to be down because of a creeping religiosity and the growing influence of ultra-Orthodox rabbis.

"Many people in Israel observe this thing of shmita and they don't differentiate between agriculture and gardening," she says.

"Many will not plant fruit trees, and some will not plant anything - or even cut the grass."

As another example Ms Agmon cites the kosher licence she displays in the small coffee bar in her greenhouse. It costs her 600 shekels ($150; 75).

"It's a huge blackmail, an established blackmail, which is very sad. It is your own business if you observe, but the more powerful the rabbis get the more aggressive they get. If the government lets them, they will do more."

Spiritual message

Not all growers and producers see the shmita as something to be got around entirely.

About 60km north of Tomer settlement sits the thriving kibbutz of Tirat Zevi, where the 600 Orthodox Jewish residents harvest 15,000 date palm trees as well as olives and other fruit trees.

Date palms
Under strict interpretation of shmita fruit must be left to fall from trees

Here the rabbi responsible has ordered that all plants grown within the boundaries of the kibbutz will be left alone for the duration of the year.

Dates and olives will not be picked and sold by the kibbutz, although anyone can come - rich and poor - and collect what falls from the trees for their own consumption. Otherwise fruit will be left to rot and disposed of.

Even the lawns and numerous flowering shrubs will not be cut. They will be watered only as much as it takes to keep plants alive.

"In this way we can remind people in the kibbutz the true message of shmita, which is allowing the earth to rest and for people to think about their spiritual needs," says Rabbi Moshe Shafti.

"The shmita helps us strenghten our spiritual beliefs, help the poor, and for us not to work so much and use the time to study the Torah."

That said, the extensive plantations outside the kibbutz's boundary fence have been temporarily sold, and agricultural work will continue as normal.

Controversies

There has been unprecedented attention on shmita in the Israeli press in recent times, much of it focusing on the rejection of temporary sales of land, by many in the religious community who regard it as a "desecration" of the shmita.

Map
Some ultra-Orthodox rabbis have told followers only to buy imported fruit and vegetables for the next 12 months, much of it from Jordan and Europe, provoking criticism that such a move harms the Israeli economy.

It is yet to be seen if the impoverished Gaza Strip will reap any benefit from this year's shmita. The territory is not considered part of the biblical Land of Israel and has benefited economically in past shmita years.

However, the goods crossing between Israel and the Hamas-controlled territory has been sealed for long periods as part of an economic blockade on the Islamist group which Israel brands a terrorist organisation.

Meanwhile, one press report said even Israeli Arab farmers in Israel itself were being pressured into making temporary sales of their land - "just to be on the safe side" - because some of them are tenants of the Israel Land Administration.



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