QUNEITRA CROSSING, Israel - Over the past two weeks, trucks carrying cartons of apples grown in Israel have been trundling past fences, soldiers and police into Syria.
Even a casual observer would notice there is something peculiar about this traffic.
For starters, the trucks bear Swiss license plates and display the emblem of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Then there are the drivers, Kenyans flown in from eastern Africa. They drive the apples less than a half-mile, along a roadway in the no man's land separating Israel and Syria.
Finally, Israeli soldiers, United Nations observer forces and Syrian border police are all keeping a watchful eye on these apples, making them some of the most closely guarded fruit in the world.
What makes this daily commerce in apples extraordinary is the fact it is happening at all.
It has been more than 30 years since there has been any known commerce between Israel and Syria, arch foes who have clashed since the first Arab-Israel war in 1948.
This month, however, Damascus announced its desire to buy 7,000 tons of apples grown by cash-strapped Druze farmers living in the Golan Heights, the rocky plateau that Israeli forces captured from Syria in the 1967 war and that Israel later annexed, declaring it Israeli territory.
Since March 14, the Red Cross trucks have carried 200 tons of apples a day across this border, about 40 miles southwest of Damascus, in a tightly controlled operation managed by the Red Cross and members of the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force that has been on duty here since 1974. The exchange will continue for about another month until the apples run out.
The apple growers are members of the Druze Islamic sect whose parents and grandparents cultivated the heights when the territory was part of Syria. After more than three decades of Israeli occupation, the farmers' allegiance remains with Syria, not Israel.
For them, each truckload carries not only hopes for a profit but also dreams of greater contact with Syria. Some of these farmers muse that apples might someday, somehow get Syria and Israel talking again.
"We wish that the selling of apples will open a new page in the relationship between Israel and Arab countries," said Elet Safadi, 43, an apple farmer watching a forklift load crates of apples onto the Red Cross vehicles.
That is banking heavily on mere apples. But in this relatively verdant corner of the Middle East, where Israel and Syria have been locked in a stalemate, any sign of cooperation, no matter how small, is welcome.
The apple sale comes during a period of change for Syria. In recent weeks it has come under intense pressure from the United States, France and the United Nations for its heavy-handed meddling in neighboring Lebanon, which it has controlled politically and economically for more than three decades. As it is forced to loosen its grip on Lebanon, it is loosing control of its main trading partner and risking larger economic problems at home.
Nobody here knows what's next. But the apple farmers hope their desire that their land again becomes Syrian territory will be reflected in any negotiations involving Syria, Israel or the United States.
"Is it only about apples?" said Asaad Safadi, who manages an apple storehouse in the Golan Heights. "Or is there something else going on?"
Israeli authorities and Middle East analysts say, no, this first-in-a-generation purchase of Golden Delicious and Starking apples is only about fruit.
"Ultimately, we have an interest in helping the farmers," said Mark Regev, spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. "We want them to succeed in their agricultural enterprise. But I want to stress this [is] an Israeli act to help the farmers. It is not a political act. It has nothing to do with the peace process with Syria."
Efraim Inbar, a researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv, was equally dismissive. "The Syrians regard the Druze farmers as their own citizens," he said. "Basically they are helping their own. It's a PR act."
Cease-fire in 1974
Overlooking southern Syria, the steep, rocky topography of the Golan Heights has offered Israel a natural defense line against Syrian attack, an excellent observation post for watching troop movements and an eavesdropping center for monitoring electronic communications.
In the 1967 war, Israeli forces drove thousands of Syrian residents out of the plateau. In 1973, Syria attempted to retake the heights but was repelled. A U.S.-brokered cease-fire in 1974 has been monitored by the U.N. observer force ever since.
Although there have been tensions between Israel and Syria, all has remained quiet along the 50-mile-long separation zone winding through the Golan's hilly terrain.