Hundreds of farmers blocked key junctions and roads across the country Thursday as they stepped up protests against a planned government reform of the agriculture industry that they say will destroy their livelihoods.
At some of the protests, demonstrators tossed produce onto the roads, including hundreds of eggs.
The farmers have support among some coalition Knesset members who are reportedly working to resolve disputes over the plan, which aims to ease the import of fresh produce and cancel quotas that were part of the regulation system for the local market in Israel.
Protests were held at Goma, Meggido, Kabri, Hefer, Bilu, Gilat, Petza’el, En Yahav Junction, and Haroeh junctions.
All roads were opened after about an hour of demonstrations.
The reform was announced earlier this month by Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman and Agriculture Minister Oded Forer, both of the Yisrael Beytenu party, who said the intention is to reduce too-high prices for consumers.
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It was slammed by farmers who insisted it was suppliers and supermarkets that were driving up costs to consumers.
The bill is scheduled to be included in the Arrangements Law, an integral part of Israel’s annual budget plan.
Coalition members from the Yesh Atid, Meretz, Labor, and Blue and White parties were all working to resolve the issues, the Globes website reported.
While Blue and White was willing to seek a compromise, the Labor party is completely opposed to including the plan in the Arrangements Law, and Meretz MK Yair Golan has declared that if the reform stays in, he will vote against the budget despite the coalition’s razor-thin majority, potentially dooming the government.
Responding to the protests, Liberman tweeted Thursday that dumping produce into the roads “won’t benefit the consumers… and will only hurt them in other ways.”
“Why is fruit cheaper in Scandinavia than in Haifa?” Liberman asked. He noted that the reform plan includes millions of shekels’ worth of subsidies for food growers.
Blue and White MK Yael Ron Ben-Moshe, at the Kabri Junction protest, warned that “without agriculture, there is no Zionism. That is not a cliché, these are facts.”
She called for talks between the government and farmers to resolve the issues, noting that the formation of the plan had so far been unilateral.
The Israel Farmer’s Association said in a statement that it would not allow the reform to pass, warning it would lead to the “shutting down” of agriculture in Israel.
“We will not cooperate with a reform that will harm the country, citizen-farmers, and the physical and nutritional security of us all,” the association said in a statement.
Chairman of the District Councils Center Shai Hajaj, who is also head of the Merhavim Regional Council, said he believed many MKs were against the plan.
“Most of the Knesset members know that the reform is destructive,” Hajaj told Channel 12 news.
Hajaj said the plan would be “a fatal blow to the agriculture sector” and warned against letting Israel become dependent on foreign imports for its food supplies.
Dovi Amiti, president of the Farmers Federation of Israel, reiterated farmers’ claims that they were not to blame for high prices, and vowed the protests will continue.
“We will continue to fight until the reform is removed from the Arrangements Law,” he told Channel 12 News.
Avshalom Vilan, secretary general of the Israel Farmers Federation, said: “Those who are setting the price in the supermarkets are not the farmers who get just a few shekels for the produce, but the chains who are selling at a price several times higher and are grabbing billions of shekels on the backs of the consumers and the farmers.”
The planned reform will gradually over five years reduce import tariffs on most fruit and vegetables, and will immediately reduce them on eggs, avocado, garlic, peas, beans, dates, pineapples and artichokes, among others.
In addition, Israel will recognize European standards for fruits and vegetables.
In a joint statement last week unveiling the plan, the finance and agriculture ministries said the reform would save Israeli consumers NIS 2.7 billion ($827 million) a year.
According to the ministries, the price of many fresh produce items has shot up by as much as 80% in recent years.
The reform is part of the Economic Arrangements Law, which will be included in the coming 2021-2022 budget. It also includes over NIS 2 billion ($613 million) in budgeting to increase productivity in the local agriculture industry.
However, farmers say that opening up the market to imports will kill the local industry, which has long been sheltered by protectionist laws and tariffs.
Liberman is reportedly eyeing other steps against supermarket chains in his bid to lower the prices of fresh produce for consumers.
And at a recent ministry meeting, Liberman appeared to agree with farmers that supermarkets were driving up prices, after being presented with figures on how much some chains have made in profits over the past year during the COVID-19 pandemic, Channel 12 News reported on Tuesday.
The figures showed that some larger chains’ profits have increased over the past year by 50 percent or more. While lockdowns and other restrictions such as distance learning for school children kept many people at home, increasing household food consumption, Liberman was said to still find the numbers unacceptable.
Various proposals were raised at the meeting including breaking up some of the larger chains, Channel 12 said, though the station noted that idea would be difficult to put into practice.