RAFAH, Gaza Strip — The Palestinian farmers of Gaza are attuned to the rhythms of the Jewish calendar and have anxiously awaited this moment.
Every seven years, the Bible commands farmers in the Holy Land to give their fields a rest (Leviticus 25). The yearlong agricultural sabbath, called the shmita in Hebrew, began this fall.
Most Israeli farmers continue to plow their fields. But to help feed the strictest Jewish followers of the tradition — many of the ultra-Orthodox communities that make up nearly 13% of Israel's population — Israel vows to loosen its tight restrictions on vegetable exports from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
For the first time since the Islamist militant group took over Gaza in 2007, Israel will allow farmers in the blockaded territory to export cucumbers, zucchini, peppers and sweet potatoes for Israeli consumption this coming year, according to Israel's Agriculture Ministry.
"Every seven years is the year of the religious people," Gaza farmer Marwan Abu Salah says, referring to the devout Jews on the other side of the fortified Israeli barrier whom he has never met but hopes will become his prime customers.
The 37-year-old farmer plunges his bare hands into a sandy hill covered in leafy green — located on the southern edge of Gaza near the Egyptian border — and pulls out nine plump sweet potatoes. "Red gold," he says, cradling the pink newborns like a proud father.
Every seven years, Israel opens its door a little wider
Gaza could be an ideal source of fruits and vegetables for Israel this shmita year running from September 2021 to September 2022. It's next door, its prices are cheap, and Jewish tradition says it was ruled by Philistines during the time of the ancient Israelites more than 3,000 years ago, so many Orthodox rabbis consider it beyond the borders of the Holy Land and exempt from the biblically mandated year of rest.
But 14 years of conflict have kept most of Gaza's produce trapped.
In 2007, Hamas, considered a terrorist group by Israel and the West, overtook Gaza from the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority. Since then, Israel and Egypt have imposed sanctions on the territory, tightly restricting travel and trade out of Gaza, and curtailing produce exports.
Only after a devastating Hamas-Israel war in 2014 did Israel creak open the door to allow Gaza farmers to export produce to Israel and to Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank for the first time. Only tomatoes and eggplants were permitted into Israel, appearing on supermarket shelves for ultra-Orthodox Jewish buyers during the agricultural sabbath in 2015.
When that shmita year ended, Gaza farmers were in for a surprise: Israel let the tomatoes and eggplants keep coming year after year, according to Gisha, an Israeli legal advocacy group that lobbies for freedom of movement for Gaza civilians. Israel has also permitted Gaza strawberries to be sold in the West Bank.
For this year's shmita, in addition to tomatoes and eggplants, Israel added the extra varieties — from peppers to sweet potatoes — to its list of approved vegetable imports. Palestinian farmers submitted produce samples to Israel for sanitation inspection, and expected to begin sales at the start of the Jewish new year in September.
The farmers are still waiting.
What's the holdup?
"It is supposed to begin soon," Israel's Agriculture Ministry told NPR by email.
Gisha says Israeli agricultural officials claim there is no need yet for Gaza produce because Turkey is meeting the current market shmita demand. Egypt and Jordan also supply excess vegetables to Israel during the biblical year of rest, and some ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities accept produce from Palestinian-owned farms in the West Bank.
Sputtering Egyptian-mediated truce negotiations between Israel and Hamas may also contribute to the export delay from Gaza.
"Every aspect of Israel's access policy for Gaza, including what goods can come out during the shmita year, is tied up in ongoing negotiations with Hamas over a long-term ceasefire and prisoner deal," said Tania Hary, director of Gisha. "This government, like those before it, is continuing to leverage its control over the economic life and well-being of civilians in the Strip for its own political gain, in violation of its obligation to protect human rights, not trade in them."
Farmers feel tricked
Gaza farmers have grown impatient. Some planted extra crops months in advance, expecting big sales in Israel, and ended up throwing away produce or selling it for cheap on the local market, losing potential revenue.
"We started to plant more tomatoes and zucchini because we understood there would be a lot of demand," Abu Salah says. "They tricked us."
Gaza farmers add it to a long list of grievances they hold against Israel. Not only does Israel restrict produce exports abroad, it has sprayed herbicides along the frontier with Gaza to kill off dense vegetation and keep the border region exposed for security monitoring. Farmers say this poisons crops in some of the few remaining arable lands in the densely populated territory.
Religion and economics are at play
In Israel, past reliance on Gaza produce for the shmita has stirred controversy among devout Jewish communities, between those bent on the strictest religious practice and others opposed to supporting the economy of a territory run by Israel's enemy Hamas.
When interviewed, Gaza farmers were not versed in the religious reasoning behind what they call "the year of the religious people," and some misinterpreted the Jewish tradition every seven years as a commandment to buy produce from one's enemies. The farmers' focus was not on religion but on a rare opportunity to boost their income after years of export bans.
Gaza farmers could have found a much bigger market in Israel this year — if it weren't for a religious loophole.
Only 3% to 5% of Israel's farmers let their lands lie fallow as the Bible commands, the Agriculture Ministry says. The rest embrace a legal fiction facilitated by the country's Chief Rabbinate and accepted by most Jewish communities: They symbolically sell their farmlands to a non-Jew for the year and carry on growing and selling as usual.
That is how Brazilian road engineer Wesley Schmidt, 31, who moved to Israel with his Jewish wife five years ago, became the symbolic owner of about a million acres of Israeli farmland this year.
Rabbis say the workaround is necessary to maintain Israel's viable farming economy.
"Everyone recognizes this is a loophole," says Rabbi Yedidya Sinclair, author of The Sabbath of the Land, a book about shmita. "But it's a compassionate loophole."