RAMALLAH, West Bank — Poultry farmers in the West Bank are suffering heavy financial losses as chickens smuggled in from Israel and Israeli settlements have sent prices plummeting far below what it costs West Bank farmers to raise the birds.
On Nov. 19, customs officials in Hebron in the southern West Bank seized 700 kilograms (1,543 pounds) of live chickens and 660 kilograms (1,455 pounds) of slaughtered chickens unsuitable for human consumption. On Nov. 15, the administration confiscated 1.5 metric tons (about 3,300 pounds) of live chickens in the city.
The thriving black market has pushed Palestinian authorities to take action. The Central Committee Against Smuggling of Poultry and Agricultural Products — a government body headed by the Ministry of Agriculture — decided Nov. 16 to form a joint operations team to prosecute smugglers in different provinces. The members of this body include the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of National Economy, the Customs Administration and various state security services.
“The joint operations team aims to chase smugglers and support the poultry sector, which has been on the verge of collapse due to heavy losses caused by the large quantities of poultry products smuggled from Israel and the settlements," Ibrahim al-Qadi, the Economy Ministry's consumer protection director, told Al-Monitor.
He explained that poultry smugglers sell chicken for as little as 3-5 shekels per kilogram (43-71 cents per pound), forcing Palestinian farmers to sell local chicken at the same price.
“Although this price is lower than the production cost of 8 shekels [per kilogram, about $1.14 per pound], not selling their poultry products would be more detrimental for [West Bank] poultry farmers, who would be forced to keep paying for chicken feed and see their stock go unsold,” he added.
“The average weekly consumption of chicken in the West Bank is 900,000 chickens. This number increases in the month of Ramadan to 1.2 million chickens,” Qadi told Al-Monitor. “According to our information, consumption of smuggled chickens increased by about 40% [just since midyear], rendering local chicken unmarketable.”
Hebron is the province most targeted by smugglers, given its high population density and its proximity to the points of contact, smuggling areas and agricultural settlements, said Qadi.
Not a month passes without the Customs Administration announcing the seizure of large quantities of smuggled chickens. Louay Bani Audi, the director of public relations and information in the Customs Administration, told Al-Monitor that from January until November of this year, authorities confiscated 13 US tons of smuggled chicken, with 4 US tons seized in the month of Ramadan alone. (Ramadan 2017 ended June 26 in the Palestinian territories.)
He added that smuggling is carried out into Area C, which represents 60% of the West Bank. “Chickens are smuggled through Israeli crossings and points of contact that are wide open to everything coming from Israel toward the West Bank without inspection,” he said.
Explaining how the Customs Administration staff supervises and controls the points of contact, Bani Audi said, “We rely on different methods. The most important is strengthening our intelligence activity, recruiting citizens to report suspicions, tightening surveillance measures by deploying undercover civilian security patrols on specific points and crossings and at the entrances of Palestinian cities and governorates.”
The Agriculture Ministry regulates the poultry sector and market. Deputy Minister Abdullah Lahlouh told Al-Monitor that Israeli authorities allow smuggling and do not control or inspect products entering the West Bank, though they strictly control what enters Israel from the West Bank. The ministry is working to tighten its own surveillance measures, he said.
Smuggling activities in this sector are not limited to chicken for meat but also include laying hens. According to Abbas Melhem, the executive director of the Palestinian Farmers Union, “For two years now, the price of an egg carton [of 30 eggs] right from the farmhouse has been varying between 4 and 8 shekels ($1.14 and $2.28), compared to a production cost of 12 shekels ($3.42). This means poultry farmers are already incurring heavy losses.”
The Palestinian market has a surplus of eggs, because Israel has banned Palestinian egg imports.
As if smuggling didn't do enough damage, some Palestinian government policies are further harming poultry farmers. “The government gives citizens random licenses to open poultry farms without taking into account consumption and saturation in the market,” Melhem said. “Statistics in 2016 by the Palestinian Farmers Union show that 740,000 laying hens crossed into the Palestinian market from Israel. From the beginning of this year until the end of August, about 450,000 laying hens and chicks were brought to the West Bank.” He noted, "The judiciary is failing to deter smugglers, releasing detained smugglers on bail. We rather need heavy fines with long prison sentences to curb this activity.”
Melhem added that the government does not offer support for troubled poultry farmers and some have gone out of business. “The government is taking no action to stop large, monopolistic companies from exploiting the situation of farmers,” he said.
Although efforts to combat poultry smuggling may help the collapsing market, poultry farmers will remain in dire need of supportive government policies such as tighter control over the market, tracking unlicensed farmers who buy smuggled chickens and efforts to ensure a cooperative relationship between farmers and large poultry companies.