Family members on a West Bank farm work together to keep up with the demand from Israel's Orthodox Jewish community for the coming year [AFP]

Palestinian farmers across the occupied West Bank are expecting a surge in business this year thanks to Israelis observing a Jewish biblical law called shmita.

The law stipulates that all Jewish-owned fields be left fallow every seven years and that none of their crop be used for the duration of the year.

The Jewish year of 5768, which begins at sunset on Wednesday, is one such year and it means that tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox observers of shmita will have to find alternative supplies of fruits and vegetables.

With the new Jewish year just days away, ultra-Orthodox Jews are turning to neighbouring Palestinian and Jordanian farmers to supply tonnes of fruits and vegetables in the coming year.

"All of my family and many friends are working in the fields to keep up with the demand," which has grown three-fold to reach some 360 tonnes this year, Azam Jaber says.

Before Jaber was allowed to sell his produce in the ultra-Orthodox market, his land, on the outskirts of Hebron, had to come under the supervision of rabbis - who often visit Palestinian areas, accompanied by soldiers.

"The rabbis wanted us to provide a land deed proving I, and not a Jew, own the field," Jawad Rujabe, Jaber's partner, said.

'Not kosher'

The trade, expected to reach a volume of 100 million dollars over the coming year, has led to criticism from Israel's mainstream rabbis.

The chief rabbinate, which issues the standard kosher seal for food, does not allow the use of Palestinian produce during the fallow year because of difficulties of overseeing the production.

Thousands of Palestinian farmers expect to earn well over the coming year [AFP]
"We, as the chief rabbinate, do not allow trade with Palestinians because it is too dangerous and difficult to supervise the process of growing, picking and selling the crop," Moshe Raucheberger, a member of the rabbinate's shmita committee, said.

Instead, to get around the shmita, the rabbinate allows the symbolic selling of the Jewish-owned fields to Arabs or Christians - a loophole that allows a continued use of the fields.

"This way, everything we eat does not originate from Jewish fields," Raucheberger says.

Meanwhile, other religious figures have blasted trade with Palestinian farmer, saying it undermines the Jewish state in its decades-long conflict with the Palestinians.

"As a religious Zionist I do not want my state to strengthen those who are not exactly my friends because of the biblical law," Rabbi Daniel Sperber, a political right-wing representative, said at a shmita conference in Jerusalem last month.

But Bergman says that trading with the Palestinians in fact strengthens Israel's security.

Ready to please rabbis

The rabbis have gone to extreme measures to ensure that Palestinian crops comply with Jewish laws.

We use every available means of technology in order to supervise the process and make sure we are not being had

"We use every available means of technology in order to supervise the process and make sure we are not being had," Rabbi Meir Bergman, head of field inspections in the West Bank, said.

"In the past we have used helicopters over fields in the Gaza Strip, and today we use sophisticated camera systems."

Some rabbis have suggested placing cameras at the entrance to the town of Jericho, from where most of the Jordan Valley produce is transported to Israel, in order to ensure that Palestinian produce does not mix with "impure" crops from Israel.

Palestinian farmers are even prepared to videotape the packaging and loading of their crop, says Samir Muadi of the civil administration department that co-ordinates between the rabbis, the army and the Palestinian farmers.

"There are massive expectations from this year among Palestinians. This year will guarantee an income for thousands of farmers' families and they are ready to do anything to please the rabbis," Muadi said.

Source: Agencies