Occupied Golan: apple transfer operation coming to an end
It's a rare sight to see the Kuneitra Crossing, between the occupied Golan and Syria proper, bustling with activity. For the past seven weeks, large white trucks emblazoned with the ICRC emblem have been driving back and forth across the 1974 demarcation line as part of a rather unique humanitarian operation aimed at giving a boost to Golan apple farmers.
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The ICRC, as a neutral intermediary, is working with the Israeli and Syrian authorities to facilitate issues of humanitarian concern for the Syrian Arab inhabitants of the part of the Golan that is occupied by Israel.
" After seven weeks of hard work, the Golan apple transfer operation wrapped up on 22 April, " said Marianne Gasser, the ICRC's head of delegation in Syria. " This year, 8,100 tonnes of Golan apples were transferred into Syria proper by the ICRC... the largest amount we've ever transported. It's the fifth time since 2005 that we've carried out such a transfer and the number of apples has more than doubled since the very beginning. "
Watched closely by UN peacekeeping forces and Syrian and Israeli soldiers, the trucks made around 30 trips a day, five days a week.
According to Karanja Ndung'u, one of the Kenyan ICRC drivers who helped make the transfer happen, the heavy workload was worth it. " This was the second time I have taken part in the ICRC's apple transfer operation. It is important work… I can see it just by looking at the people's faces on both sides. They are so happy. "
Transferring apples might seem an odd humanitarian activity, but the farmers of the Golan say it's very important to their community's economy. Around a quarter of the apples they grow are taken to Syria proper to be sold.
" Before these transfers started, we had many difficulties selling our apples. As a result, a lot of farmers started to abandon their land, " explained Nazem Khater, a Golan farmer. " Besides boosting the local economy, the transfers also favour employment within our community, and there are a very few job opportunities in the Golan. "
His comments are echoed by Samira Ibrahim, who helps sort and pack the apples for shipping.
" Before our apples were marketed to our homeland, we had about 60 working days per year. Now that we transfer the apples, the number of working days has almost doubled because we need to prepare the shipments. This has really helped increase my income. Every year, we wait for this operation to take place, " she said.
However, the apples represent much more than profit and sales.. " The yearly apple operation also enables our community to maintain links with our homeland, Syria, " added Ghaleb Khater, another farmer. " Seeing these trucks going to Syria proper motivates me to keep planting trees and growing apples. I hope this economic initiative will also draw attention to the humanitarian situation of the Syrian Arabs in the occupied Golan, who are separated from their families in Syria. "
The vast majority of Syrian Arabs in the Golan have close relatives living elsewhere in Syria, but are unable to visit them because of the sealed separation zone.
A taste of childhood
The apples from the Golan are known in Syria for being big, juicy and of a high standard. The Syrian government buys them at a marked-up price in a show of support for the Golan community.
" This fruit is in high demand in Syria, " said Issam Said Chaalan, the Mayor of Kuneitra. " Not only because the apples are of excellent quality and taste, but also because they represent the Golan community and its dignity. "
Half of the mayor's family is living on the other side of the demarcation line. " Each time I smell and taste the apples of the Golan, I am taken back 40 years in time and the memories of my childhood spent in my family's field in the Golan become stronger. There is nothing more important to me than my motherland. I am very proud of my community and land. "
For Faten Yussef Fadi, a volunteer at the Kuneitra branch of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, the fruit symbolizes hope. " The apples owe their unique taste and quality to the soil and vast water resources of the Golan heights. For me, no apples in the world taste better than the ones from the Golan. They taste of a love for freedom. "