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Olive oil brings Jews and Arabs together in cooperation

Posted By Stephanie Freid On April 8, 2008 @ 10:37 am In | No Comments

When people think of olive oil they think of France, Spain and Italy. But in Israel, you can also find complicated quality oils.Israelis and Palestinians have a tough time getting along. That’s not rocket science. Turn on any news program virtually any hour of any given day of any week and the proof is in the rolling footage.

But the footage often doesn’t show the many ways in which the two sides tend to cooperate, particularly behind closed doors. In certain industries, like those relating to water use and preservation, or desertification and staunching its global spread, cooperation is abundant. And while not always 100% smooth or easy, it does exist.

The olive oil export industry is another Israeli-Palestinian meeting ground which has been fueled in recent years by growing demand for olive oil, now considered a gourmet offering along the likes of wine.

Traditionally a predominantly Arab-owned and operated industry in the region, Israel is partnering with Arab sectors by bringing technological advances to the table and raising standards for competing globally in major olive oil consumer markets.

“Until recently olive cultivation and olive oil production were mainly concentrated in the Arab sectors of northern Israel’s Galilee,” Professor Zeev Wiesman of Ben Gurion University’s Bio-Technology Department told ISRAEL21c. “For decades Palestinian farmers in the West Bank have also been producing significant quantities of olives and olive oil, making up more than a third of Israeli market demand.”

But as Western awareness surrounding olive oil’s health properties grew and political changes in the Mid-East created “new players” in Israel’s olive oil industry, a surge in demand for new and advanced technologies to keep up with rapid development were needed.

“People have been asking for higher quality oil. We need to turn the industry from a historically ‘backyard press family business’ into a cost-effective investment in knowledge, marketing, machinery and quality analysis that would be treated like any other mass product industry,” Wiesman explained.

That translated into finding new genetic material to work with, improving agro-technology to increase productivity, boosting cost effectiveness, reigning in industrial waste and improving branding techniques.

As part of that initiative, Wiesman organized a first-of-its-kind conference at Ben Gurion University last month and invited Israeli and Arab agriculturists, producers, marketers, health officials, growers and scientists.

The diverse gathering of 150 industry associates sat in on a colorful array of lectures ranging from scientific talks extolling the benefits of agricultural image processing for advanced quality and productivity, to health ministry revelations on decreased obesity vis a vis olive oil consumption. Other talks were on a Nazareth based Arab agriculturist’s frank query on the dilemma of toxic wastewater disposal, and a gourmet chef’s cues on critical elements surrounding flavor, aroma, consistency and quality for clients.

The central emphasis was on collectively moving forward and increasing product quality. According to Wiesman, the outcome was a threefold success: a joint Arab-Israeli team to address industry waste was created and Israeli Chief Commerce and Trade scientist Dr. Eli Ofer committed to stimulating new business in international markets, and building local branding to increase Israeli and Palestinian export and production.

“It’s a multi-million dollar a year industry,” corporate sales manager Hanee Jahshan of the Galilee’s Jahshan Family Farm told ISRAEL21c.

A seventh generation family-owned and operated business, the Jahshan industry began with a backyard press in the late 1800s. Now a 1,500-ton-per-year operation with 25 full time staffers, the Jahshans have upgraded quality to meet demand.

“The industry movement has been very similar to development in Israel’s wine industry; aesthetics and the Galilee branding fit in with boutique-style shops sprouting throughout the country,” Jahshan explained.

Has working with Israeli vendors presented a dilemma for Jahshan? “Not on a personal level. But there is a government policy restricting Arab land ownership that makes it impossible for us to ever expand beyond a certain point. That’s tough to deal with sometimes,” Jahshan admits.

For Hilla Wenkert, CEO of Tel Aviv’s Olia Gourmet Olive Oil, specializing in boutique clientele, the challenges of working with Hebron and Ramallah based growers and producers arise from quality control and basic product movement issues. Oil doesn’t always meet commercial standards during lab sampling and getting goods through checkpoints has proven time consuming and exhausting.

“Some of Ramallah’s villages are producing excellent quality oils. But because of the political situation simply moving oil from place to place – what should technically take an hour and a half maximum under optimal conditions – can take three days,” Wenkert told ISRAEL21c. “Getting through all the checkpoints with the product is really tough because there are only a few points allowing products to pass.”

But in Arab dominated growing and oil production sectors of the West Bank and Galilee, Wiesman and colleagues are working to ease restrictions and create equal playing grounds.

“Ben Gurion University and several NGO’s have joined forces with an initiative to support Palestinian olive oil producers so that they are part of the local industry upgrade process,” Wiesman said.

Ultimately, both sides know the cooperative effort pays off in product, marketing and sales benefits.

“People talk about French, Italian or Spanish oil. It’s because they don’t know that we produce complicated, quality oils here,” Wenkert concluded. “My job is to give the broad public a taste of Israel’s olive oil culture. And to do that means cooperation. It’s important; it’s part of the tradition.”