Israeli Jews turn to Palestinians for kosher veg

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JERUSALEM, Oct 23 (Reuters) A Jewish agricultural law that crops up every seven years is prompting Israel's most fervent Zionists to turn to Palestinian farmers for food.

According to biblical law, farmers must let the land of Israel ''rest and lie fallow'' every seventh year, which means no planting crops, no picking fruit and no working vineyards.

In past years, farmers have circumvented the law by symbolically ''selling'' their land to a non-Jew for the year.

This year, some Orthodox Jews want that loophole to be closed and are turning to Palestinian farmers for their kosher vegetables -- an ironic twist in a region gripped by conflict over land ownership.

Wearing traditional prayer shawls, a group of bearded Orthodox Jews strolled through Palestinian farmland in the occupied West Bank, choosing the shiniest, firmest tomatoes to take back to their communities.

They marked each box with a black ''kosher'' stamp in Hebrew.

''God wants to remind us and tells us 'look, I'm the owner of the land','' said Rabbi Shner Revach, chairman of the government- sponsored group that oversees implementation of biblical laws.

'''Once in seven years, let mother nature rest, and trust me'.'' The agricultural sabbatical - known as ''shmita'' - started last month with the Jewish New Year, and Israel's Industry and Trade Ministry said imports of Palestinian produce into Israel had risen significantly since then.

STRICTER INTERPRETATION In past shmita years, religious authorities have permitted the symbolic sale of land to a non-Jew, a practice called ''heter mechira''.

''Heter mechira was established by rabbis who thought: what would happen to farmers if they leave? Losses. And enemies would take over the land,'' Revach said.

This year, many ultra-Orthodox rabbis want a stricter interpretation of the law, with a ban on methods aimed at getting around it.

Using two of those methods, some farmers grow crops on platforms to avoid working the land directly, or cover their fields with giant greenhouses for the year, which means they are indoors and thus exempt.

Israel's chief rabbinate has allowed local religious authorities to decide how to enforce the shmita rule and many ultra-Orthodox communities have insisted on a literal interpretation, which has pressured secular farmers to conform.

Farmer Dror Maimoni, who, like many Israelis ''sells'' his land to non-Jews during shmita years, has scaled back production because his produce is not deemed kosher under the stricter rules.

''We have reduced the amount of produce to the minimum possible because our sales are not like every other year,'' Maimoni said.

NO STAMP, NO SALES Even non-religious Israelis are affected by the shmita, since stores selling produce that has not been approved by the religious authorities run the risk of losing business.

''A lot of regular customers are not here any more because of the shmita,'' said Keren Kasit, whose shop in Tel Aviv, Israel's secular metropolis, lacks the kosher stamps from rabbis.

A vendor at a Tel Aviv market said a shortage of goods sanctioned as kosher had forced up prices.

''(The Orthodox) have the shmita and they buy from the Arabs, that's their religion, and now the prices have gone up dramatically,'' he said, giving his name only as Sami.

The legality of heter mechira is being discussed in Israel's Supreme Court and some rabbis have formed groups to offer alternative religious sanctions that bypass the ultra-Orthodox ban and allow farmers to take advantage of the loophole.

In Hebron, Palestinian merchant Ghaleb Abu Sneineh stood near his fruits and vegetables as Orthodox Jews, members of a local shmita committee which is responsible for implementing the law in their communities, selected their produce.

The Jewish law has affected the Palestinian economy by increasing demand for Palestinian produce and inflating prices.

''Vegetable prices are high ... especially tomatoes, because the Israelis buy hundreds of tonnes from the Palestinian farmers,'' Abu Sneineh said.

REUTERS ARB RN0947

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