- Palestinian farmers in the occupied West Bank face economic devastation as a surge in violence by illegal Israeli settlers and the Israeli military prevents them from harvesting their olives. Around 100,000 Palestinian families are estimated to rely on these trees as a source of income.
- The start of the war in Gaza coincided with the autumn olive harvest, but the Israeli military has cut off West Bank farmers’ access to their orchards, while reportedly allowing illegal settlers in to steal the olives and destroy the trees.
- Yet despite the settler attacks and restrictions on the olive harvest, Palestinian farmers are determined to remain steadfast and help each other harvest as much as possible before the nearing end of the season. With its long history of rootedness in the land, the olive tree is often seen as one of the most evocative symbols of resilience, and representative of a generational bond with the land.
- According to a spokesperson for the Israeli military, the restrictions faced by farmers are part of “security operations” in the area aimed at capturing militant groups and protecting Israeli settlers who claim the land, in violation of international law.
The first rainfall of autumn after months of drought signals the start of the olive harvest, the most important time of year for many Palestinian farmers. Between October and November, Palestinians gather mats, ladders and buckets to pick olives and picnic in orchards that have been passed down through generations.
“Many farmers rely completely on their olive harvest,” says Ghassan Najjar, a 35-year-old organic farmer using agroecology techniques in Burin, a village near Nablus in the northern occupied West Bank. “It’s our livelihood, our source of life.”
Nearly half of all cultivated land in the occupied West Bank and Gaza is planted with more than 10 million olive trees of mostly native, drought-resilient varieties. Around 100,000 Palestinian families are estimated to rely on these trees as a source of income. Most of the olives are sent to presses to produce olive oil, a staple in Mediterranean cuisine, while some are cured for eating and are also used to make medicine and soap.
But what used to be a cherished time with extended family and friends coming together to pick olives, drink tea and share food under the trees has become increasingly dangerous and mournful in the West Bank. According to human rights organizations, Israeli settlers who claim the land, in violation of U.N. resolutions, regularly attack Palestinian farmers, prevent them from reaching their ancestral lands, steal their olives and agricultural equipment, and destroy their olive trees.
While global attention is focused on the war in Gaza, farmers across the West Bank are facing growing violence. Since the war began on Oct. 7, settler attacks against Palestinians have more than doubled, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. In the past month and a half, at least 230 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank, including 61 children. Settler violence and intimidation have forcibly displaced 16 Palestinian communities, and the Palestinian Authority reports that more than 3,000 olive trees have been destroyed by the illegal settlers.
For Ghassan, this olive harvest season has been the worst he can remember. “We are seeing an increase in the number of attacks, not only from settlers but also from the army,” he says. “[The Israeli military] cut access to all roads leading to our agricultural land. The settlers have burned and cut about 500 olive trees in Burin,” Ghassan says. Some of the trees were “hundreds of years old. Older than the state of Israel,” he says.
With much of the movement in the West Bank restricted by the Israeli military since the beginning of October, as the army says it is increasing operations there to capture militant groups and prevent attacks against Israeli settlers, Palestinian farmers who are unable to tend to their orchards are sustaining enormous losses, say human rights groups. Families who rely on the olive harvest risk losing their income for the entire year.
Because of the restrictions of access imposed by Israeli forces, Ghassan says farmers in Burin have been unable to harvest about 700 hectares (1,730 acres) of olive groves planted by their ancestors. “I cannot reach 460 of the 1,000 trees my family owns,” Ghassan says. “But the settlers are going there and stealing our olives with the soldiers protecting them.”
Yet despite the settler attacks and restrictions on the olive harvest, Palestinian farmers are determined to remain steadfast. “Some people are willing to put themselves at great risk to protect their olive trees,” says Moayyad Bsharat of the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC), a grassroots organization working in Gaza and the West Bank to rehabilitate lands destroyed by the Israeli occupation, preserve native seeds and support farmers. “They go to these very dangerous areas to plant and to harvest their trees, even when settlers attack, to prove they won’t be defeated,” he tells Mongabay.
For the past 15 years, UAWC has been running an Olive Harvest Campaign to bring volunteers to assist farmers during the olive harvest. The presence of large numbers of volunteers, especially if they’re foreigners, can dissuade settlers from attacks, but also makes the harvest faster so farmers will be less exposed to violence.
“Many people would come from Europe and Latin America. But this year, because of the dangerous situation, we didn’t bring volunteers from abroad,” Moayyad says. Instead, farmers are relying on each other to help harvest their olives. UAWC is also supplying olive pickers and other equipment to speed up the harvest, especially as the season nears its end.
“We are still going out and trying to help and protect each other,” Ghassan says. Because at this point, he says, “we only have each other.”
Deadly violence against farmers
On Oct. 28, Bilal Saleh was harvesting olives in a plot he inherited from his family in as-Sawiya, near Nablus, when he was shot dead by an off-duty Israeli soldier in front of his wife and four children, reported the American magazine The Nation. Witnesses said his body was carried out on the ladder he had been using to reach his olives. According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, the suspected attacker, from the nearby illegal settlement of Rehelim, was detained for a few days and then released.
Rights organizations have denounced the impunity for settler violence aimed at taking more land from Palestinians and say the regular occurrence of settlers destroying trees and stealing olives continues. In many cases, Israeli forces are accompanying or even actively supporting the attacks, says the U.N.
Days after the Hamas militant group’s attack in October that triggered the war, Israel’s national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who lives in another illegal settlement on the outskirts of Hebron, announced his ministry was purchasing 10,000 rifles to arm Israeli civilians, and has given most of them to settlers in the West Bank.
Israel’s finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, called for the formation of “security zones” around Israeli settlements and banning Palestinian farmers from reaching their olive groves nearby.
The Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the military body responsible for Israeli policies in the occupied Palestinian territories, referred all Mongabay’s questions to an army spokesperson, who did not comment on the farmers’ situation. The military said that restrictions in the West Bank are part of “security operations in the area” aimed at protecting Israelis from a surge in attacks. The U.N. has recorded the killing of two Israeli soldiers and one Israeli in the West Bank since October 7. According to the army spokesperson, there were 550 attempted attacks. However, Mongabay and independent investigators have not been able to verify this information.
Since 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank, thousands of Palestinians have been forced out of the land to create settlements that exclusively house Jewish residents. Some settlers claim a religious right to live in the West Bank, while others are attracted by tax benefits and incentives offered by the Israeli government to move there.
According to international law, which bans an occupying power from transferring its population to the area it occupies, the settlements are illegal and a war crime.
“This is an opportunity for the settlers because there is no law, nobody to protect the farmers,” says Bashar al-Qaryuti, a farmer from Qaryut, in southern Nablus. Surrounded by Israeli settlements, his village has long suffered from settler violence aimed at expelling Palestinians from the land. But this year has been even worse.
“We are experiencing aggressions on a daily basis,” he says. Restrictions imposed by Israeli authorities have barred him from picking olives from his own trees and cut off access to local resources. “Since the beginning of the war, our water supply has been cut and all the crops have been destroyed. Land has been confiscated and roads have been cut off to Palestinians,” Bashar says. To get water, they now have to buy it from other villages.
Olive trees aren’t just a vital source of sustenance. Bashar says they’re “sacred” and a part of the history of Palestine. “They are the roots of the Palestinian people. If they cut thousands of trees, we will plant even more,” he says defiantly.
For Moayyad, the olive tree is “the definition of resilience” and “the heart of Palestinians. Even if we are at home, our heart is out there beating on the hills and plains where the olive trees are rooted.”
The Arabic word sumud, “steadfastness” or “perseverance,” is often used by Palestinians to refer to their commitment to stay rooted to the land and defy all Israeli attempts to drive them out. With its long history of rootedness in the land, the olive tree is often seen as one of the most evocative symbols of sumud, and representative of a generational bond with the land.
Dating back an estimated 5,000 years, an olive tree in the West Bank village of al-Walaja, near Bethlehem, is believed to be one of the world’s oldest olive trees. With its massive branches extending skyward and the roots reaching deep into the ground, the tree documents the long agricultural history of the region.
“Israelis have uprooted more than 3 million trees since the year 2000. Destroying the trees is a way of erasing the history and existence of Palestinians,” says Mariam Jaajaa, from the Arab Group for the Protection of Nature (APN), a civil society movement working on food security and agriculture.
For Mariam, settlers see the ancient trees “as enemies because they expose the lie that Israelis came to an empty land.” In response to what the APN says is Israel’s systematic destruction of Palestinian orchards, the organization launched a “Million Tree Campaign” to replant the uprooted trees.
“We have planted 2.9 million trees since we started in the early 2000s,” she says. The goal, she adds, is to support farmers to stay rooted in their lands. “If they uproot a tree, we plant 10,” she says.
Targeting Gaza’ agriculture and farmland
On Oct. 7, Hamas broke through the Israeli fences that have turned Gaza into what human rights groups call “the world’s largest open-air prison” and launched an attack on Israeli army outposts, towns and kibbutzim (Israeli communities), killing about 1,200 people and taking some 240 hostages.
Since then, Israel has been bombing the besieged enclave that’s home to 2.3 million people who have nowhere to flee. Israeli authorities also imposed a “complete blockade” of Gaza, cutting off food, water, electricity and fuel.
Israeli bombardments from air, sea and land have killed more than 14,800 Palestinians and have caused widespread destruction of housing, essential infrastructure, and agricultural land, according to the U.N. and health officials in Gaza. “Farmlands became battlefields,” Moayyad says.
Human Rights Watch, a rights organization, has documented Israel’s illegal use of white phosphorus, which has an incendiary effect and can cause severe burns to both people and their land. But Israel’s environmental warfare didn’t start on Oct. 7. Since 2000, Israel has destroyed about 35% of Gaza’s farmland, razing it to establish a “buffer zone” and spraying herbicides that have scorched agricultural land and turned it barren, resulting in the loss of farmers’ livelihoods, according to an investigation by Forensic Architecture, a research agency under Goldsmiths, University of London.
Before the war, more than half of Gaza’s population was already vulnerable to food insecurity. With the collapse of agriculture and fisheries and the interruption of water, food and fuel supplies, the United Nations now considers all the population of Gaza to be food insecure.
Last year, Gaza’s Ministry of Agriculture estimated there were about 4,400 hectares (10,900 acres) planted with olive trees in Gaza that produced 35,000 metric tons of olives annually. “The olive season starts earlier in Gaza, but because of the war, no farmers were able to harvest their olives this year,” Moayyad says. “A few farmers in the south started picking olives in early October, but weren’t able to continue.”
APN’s campaign to plant trees in the West Bank and Gaza was paused this autumn because of the war, but the group says it hopes to resume as soon as possible. “We planted about half a million trees in Gaza,” Mariam says. Whenever they are destroyed, she says, “we will plant them again.”
Even when they’re cut down and there’s only a stump left, olive trees have the remarkable ability to sprout again, as long as their roots remain alive. Despite the violence and destruction, Palestinian farmers have vowed to continue protecting their land, their trees and their roots, holding on to the hope that life will sprout again.
Banner image: Doha Asous, known as Um Musa, collects her olives on her land located close to the settlement of Yizhar, Burin, West Bank, October 15, 2022. The Asous family owns about 84 dunums (measurement unit) but most of it is very difficut or impossible to access due to the proximity of the Israeli settlements. Surrounded by several Israeli settlements, Burin has been a frequent target of attacks by Israeli settlers. Image by Anne Paq.
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