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KAI RYSSDAL: There are a couple of places in the world where international borders are seriously fortified and notoriously difficult to pass through. The demilitarized zone between North and South Korea’s one of them. The border between Israel and Syria along the Golan Heights is another.
The two countries haven’t had diplomatic relations since Israel occupied the Heights after the 1967 war. And the border fence is guarded by soldiers from both sides, as well as a special unit of the United Nations. But this year, for the third year in a row, the gates at the Kuneitra checkpoint have been opening several times a day, as Orly Halpern reports.
ORLY HALPERN: The gate has just opened, and the truck driver is about to cross into Syria, up here in the Golan Heights on the border with Israel.
JOSEPH MACHIRI: Yeah, we just came to transfer apples from Israeli side to Syrian side. After that, then we go home.
That’s Joseph Machiri. He’s a truck driver. But his black skin and his non-Arabic accent reveal that he’s no local. He’s from Kenya.
So why bring Joseph 2,300 miles to drive a load of apples 200 yards? Because this business deal is taking place between enemy states whose residents can’t enter each other’s territory.
Oded Ratner is responsible for fruit in the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture.
ODED RATNER: Four years ago, if somebody would come to me and would say, “We are going to sell apples to Syria,” I am sure I will think he’s mad. It was unbelievable.
But sometimes, economic pressures can get people to do the impossible.
Druze in the Golan used to make their living from apples. But as the Israeli apple market got flooded with apples, the prices dropped.
Assad Safadi, a Druze from the Golan Heights, manages East Cold Storage, where apples get cleaned and stored.
ASSAD SAFADI: Although in Syria there are a lot of apples, they don’t need apples. But they made this gesture for us, because they believe the Golan Heights is a Syrian land, so they are committed to help the people here.
Israeli farmers were equally interested in getting their government to agree. But as Ratner explained, the government had to find an almost Talmudic way to get around political and military restrictions to allow the Druze to trade with a sworn enemy.
RATNER: One is the finance minister, which had to give us a special license to deal with the enemy. The other one is the Ministry of Defense, which had to give the army the order to cooperate — because the fruit is passing through a military point.
So why did the Red Cross, a humanitarian organization, get involved in an apple deal? To get the apples to the other side.
Mohammed Safadi, the representative of the Red Cross in the Golan Heights, helped arrange the deal. But it wasn’t an easy sell
MOHAMMED SAFADI: In the beginning, Geneva, which was our headquarter, kind of almost refused it. Some people view it as a business-like type of activity. Actually, we looked at it as in the long term that these farmers, if they continue to lose money on their apples, at certain point in time they will desert these lands, and this whole industry will not be sustainable. And at this stage, we might be required to provide them with assistance.
Rima Romiya is packing apples at East Cold Storage, and is happy the apples are going to Syria.
RIMA ROMIYA (voice of interpreter): We are not happy when our apples go to Israel. We’re Arabs. We want our apples to go to our people.
This is the land of many false starts, but hopes are high that the trade between enemies will continue. For now, they are packing apples.
In the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights, this is Orly Halpern for Marketplace.
A worker inspects a truck loaded with apples grown in the Golan Heights as it passes through the Kuneitra checkpoint between Syria and the Israeli-occupied area. (Louai Beshara, AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian grocer displays apples from the Golan Heights at a market in Damascus. (Louai Beshara, AFP/Getty Images)