The bitter olives of Palestine

#Palestine #oleiculture #picking #olives #harvest #Israel #occupation #colonization #land_grabbing #violence #human_rights #volunteering

14 January 2020


Every year, in October and November, the olive harvest takes place in Palestine. On the occasion of the harvest, the violence of some Israeli settlers against peasants intensifies. To protect families from these attacks, volunteers from all over the world come to assist them. This season, the violence targeted the volunteers themselves. Here are some elements to try to understand a highly problematic situation.

by Johanna Schreiner

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The olive in Palestine

The olive harvest is traditionally a time of celebration in Palestine. People harvest as a family and help their neighbours. Olive groves are inherited from generation to generation and trees are often several hundred years old. The oil produced covers the annual needs of families and the surplus is sold to a cooperative or wholesaler. Three-quarters of this production is absorbed by the domestic market.

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Meal break in the shade of the olive tree with a family from Silwan, a suburb of Jerusalem.

In the occupied Palestinian territories, 47% of agricultural land (about 86,000 hectares) is used for olive growing, which represents about 10 million olive trees providing an income for nearly 100,000 families.

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In Palestine, the olive oil sector employs 15% of the working women.
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Nadia prepares the bags for transport to the oil mill. The olives will be washed before being pressed.

This sector produces an estimated annual value of 160 to 191 million USD. Due to the fragmentation of plots, cultivation often remains artisanal and organic - which could prove to be an asset if the sector were to generalize the quality standards required for exports [1].

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On the rugged grounds of old olive groves, it is the donkey that transports the harvest.

According to the International Olive Council, in 2016/17, Palestine exported 6,500 tons of olive oil out of the 20,000 tons produced, mainly to the Gulf countries.

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Harvesting near Nablus. Photo: Gil Hammerschlag.

Palestinian agriculture as a whole is heavily impacted by the Israeli occupation. In 2016, it accounted for only 3.2% of GDP, with agricultural and agri-food products accounting for only 28.1% (USD 260.2 million) of exports. The restriction of access to land and water and the prohibition on building infrastructure jeopardize agricultural development and create, in addition, a dependence on imports of Israeli agri-food products. Obviously, international aid is barely able to offset this type of effect.

A pick that slips

In the logic of hindering the development of Palestinian olive growing, aggressions and settler vandalism play a major role. In 2018, the United Nations recorded 186 reported incidents : physical assaults, armed threats, fire or tree uprooting and crop theft.

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Last safety instructions before reaching the fields.

Every season, volunteers, lay people, religious, pacifists, Israelis or internationals lend a hand to the peasants, guaranteeing them, simply because of their presence, a relative security [2]. These volunteers place themselves between the farmers and the settlers, but they will above all be able to testify about their experience in the field upon their return. During contacts, Hebreophones also seek to establish dialogue with the military, often young recruits who are unaware of the reality of the situation.

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On 16 October, in the Burin region south of Nablus, a group of internationals from the Israeli humanitarian association Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) was attacked. Armed with iron bars and stones, about thirty masked men ran down the hill and threw themselves at the ten volunteers. Five people were injured, including Rabbi Moshe Yehudai, 80 years old, who had to be hospitalized with a broken arm.

Rabbi peace activist beaten up by extremist Israeli settlers – by David McKenzie for CNN.

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Isaac, a US theology student, wounded during the attack (photo: RHR).

The attackers then set fire to the olive grove, destroying about 100 trees. In 2019 there are already more than 1,000 trees destroyed.

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Fields of olive trees burned by the attackers of Yitzhar. Photo: Gil Hammerschlag.

The vandals originate from the illegal colony of Yitzhar, which, together with the neighbouring illegal colony of Bracha, is reputed to be a Mecca for colonial aggression.

The administrative system

A map helps to understand why it is so dangerous for a Palestinian family to harvest their own olives in their own field.

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Burin region, 10 km south of Nablus. Sources: Peace Now, B’Tselem.

The illegal settlements and their outposts are located in Zone C (here in blue), administered exclusively by the Israeli military forces. This is an area of lawlessness for the local population, which only enjoys all its rights in Area A and relative rights in Area B (here in brown). Like a glacis, from which the archipelago of municipalities emerges here and there, Zone C covers the ancestral lands of families, and therefore their olive groves and fields. These lands belong to them, but families are prevented from caring for them properly.

This legal situation was imposed on Palestine by the 1995 Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (known as the “Oslo II” Agreement). It is part of the interim arrangements that are expected to lead to Palestinian autonomy on West Bank territory after five years. This autonomy has never been achieved.

This agreement decided to divide the territory into three zones:
 zone A: 18% of the territory. These islets correspond to the building of towns and villages. This area is administered by the Palestinian Authority.
 zone B: 22% of the territory. This is the extended perimeter of municipalities. This area is under the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority for the administration and Israel for security matters.
 zone C: 60% of the territory. The only undivided area, it covers all of Palestine outside the aggregate areas of Areas A and B. It is under the exclusive military control of the Israeli army, which arbitrarily decides to declare parts of it “natural reserves” or “military zones” closed to access. Here, Israel sets up most of its illegal settlements. 90% of the fertile Jordan Valley is in Zone C [3].

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“Crumbles of Palestine”: Zones A and B — what Palestinians have left to live (excluding East Jerusalem and Gaza).

The Israeli military administration (known as the “civil authority”), in charge of Zone C, prohibits the construction of all types of infrastructure (houses, shelters, reservoirs, irrigation systems, etc.) and regulates access to them, which makes it extremely difficult for it to farm. To harvest its olives, it is necessary to obtain an authorization from the Coordination Office. These authorizations are not always granted or they are issued for too short a period of time, not corresponding to the time actually needed for the pick-up : cases of two days of pick-up authorized for the season are reported.

Similarly, olive groves near the separation wall require owners to use an “agricultural door”. In 2017, of 76 doors, 54 were temporarily opened during the olive harvest, 10 are open on one or more days of the week throughout the year, 12 doors are open every day, 56 require an access permit and 20 operate by prior coordination. In the northern occupied territories, in 2017, only 55 per cent of applications were accepted.

Of course, farmers cannot properly maintain their fields outside the authorized periods. Thus, operations carried out during the year would make it possible to mitigate the effects of natural alternation of the olive tree (an abundant harvest alternates with a meagre harvest). Restrictions on access to fields therefore result in a significant loss of yields: their trees produce half as much as neighbouring Jordanian trees. But without supervision, these fields were also left to be plundered by the settlers.

The role of the army

The army must ensure order and security in Zone C and partially in Zone B [4]. The collaboration between the IDF and the settlers is, however, ostensible.

The way the army is used to maintain the system is perfectly illustrated by the incident that took place in the same area of Burin with another group of Rabbis for Human Rights two days after the attack:

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When the volunteers arrived, about thirty soldiers were present on the Mohammed site, located below the illegal settlement of Yitzhar. The soldiers let the volunteers start picking.
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The military film and photograph people from all angles. A journalist is asked for his identity papers.
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A manager produces a document prohibiting access to the field on which the group is located.
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The field is temporarily declared a closed military zone.
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An RHR member, tries to talk.
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Volunteers don’t let themselves be intimidated.
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The military press the volunteers out of the field with five vehicles.
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Remaining in retreat, but not hiding, the leader of the private militia of Yitzhar observes the operations.

Once the volunteers had left, the border police attacked the peasant, Mohammed, and beat him up. A neighbour arranged his transport to the hospital.

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Volunteers who leave to work in a nearby field will be surprised to be denied access to their own bus when they return. This one is parked near to the Amsha spring, where settlers bathe... Insane intimidation betraying the symbolic dimension of the struggle that is taking place in the territories.

The share of settlers

If extremist settlers dare to harass and discourage peasants in this way, it is because they know that they do not incur any liability pursuit.

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After the October 16 attack, injured volunteers want to file a complaint with the Ariel City Police Department. Only an RHR manager is authorized to enter.

Usually fortified with barbed wire and sometimes flanked by watchtowers, their illegal settlements often settle on the top of the hills, overlooking Palestinian villages.

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Illegal settlement of Givon Hadasha, near Ramallah. Photo: Philippe Rekacewicz.

The olive harvest is thus carried out under constant threat of an attack from above.

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Below the illegal settlement of Bracha, when picking in the Mundar field, a person is designated to watch for warning signs (sounds, movements) of a possible attack and give the alert.
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A worrying sign: an unidentified drone is monitoring the actions of volunteers. If the threat of an attack appears, the group stops picking. But then you have to wait until you can take the harvest away to prevent the settlers from stealing it. There are also many olive thefts in the period preceding the authorized harvest days, amounting to several tons.


The psychological threat and violence of the settlers are intended to discourage Palestinians and thus strengthen the administrative and military system. This system is based on the land law, inherited from the Ottoman era, which provides that a field that has not been maintained - or whose trees have not been harvested - for three consecutive years is considered abandoned, falls into the public domain and is declared State property by Israel. This way of doing things clean slate allows illegal Israeli settlements to take over the territory.

Ironically, the local population, due to a lack of resources, will accept to work for the people who dislodged them if necessary. It is also not uncommon to see children employed as cheap labour in colonial agriculture.

In 2018, there were 427,800 settlers in the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem), living in 132 settlements and 121 illegal outposts, representing 14% of the population. Over the past three years, Israel has approved the construction of almost 7,000 housing units per year. An Israeli regularization law claims to legalize their presence, even for unauthorized outposts. Colonial infrastructure is heavily subsidized by the Israeli state.

These settlements are illegal under international law. The State of Israel, itself created in 1947 by UN Resolution 181 on the partition plan for Palestine, ignores the countless UN Security Council resolutions issued since the 1967 invasion (the latest being in 2016) on the illegality of this colonization that makes Israel an occupying power. This occupation is indeed the source of the climate of violence in the territories and its escalation and the first obstacle to peace in the region.

For settlers, to choose to settle down in the occupied Palestinian territory does not necessarily have an ideological character, but can be motivated by simple economic reasons: the cost of housing in Israel has exploded...

Why commit against the occupation when you’re an Israeli?

For Gil, a young Israeli activist, born and raised in a settlement, knowing and forming his own political opinion is crucial in a country where national propaganda is omnipresent, instilled from school, during official ceremonies or on the occasion of military service.

"I suppose the same is true in other countries, but in the Middle East and Israel, because of the situation, indoctrination is very strong. Many Israelis and Palestinians take what they are told at face value. The only way to really understand the situation is to inform yourself and meet the Palestinians, to take an interest in their struggles.

I am part of the young Israeli society that is well versed in technology and science. As a rational person, I approach political issues in a pragmatic way, through an empirical approach. As a lay person, I focus on racial, national and religious issues, all three of which are strongly intertwined in the Israeli imagination, in a rational and less emotional perspective. Of course, it is also as a human being that I am involved, which goes beyond the moral issues of good and evil. I read how several months ago, in Kufr Kadum, soldiers shot Abd a-Rachman, a 9-year-old child, in the head. Not only do I know that this is “wrong”, but I am also sad, frustrated, horrified by what we are doing... I am angry... What dictates my approach is the will to break down the walls of segregation, fear and resentment, as well as to help people deprived of their rights.

I wonder, of course, why so many secular and “rational” young people like me do not feel concerned by the Israeli-Palestinian question and engage in a gentle and non-violent resistance against occupation and injustice. It is that many (or: just enough to maintain the status quo) are simply taking advantage of the situation created by 52 years of occupation. They are not even aware that they contribute to maintaining this occupation. Children from the most educated classes and the upper socio-economic classes enlist in the army’s high-tech intelligence units. Shortly after their military service, they can find well-paying jobs in high tech companies, or even start their own business (in fact, a large proportion of Israeli start-ups are developed by former soldiers from these units). So why question such a comfortable situation? Then there are those of us who dedicate ourselves body and soul to our studies or careers, who flourish there, who find meaning in their lives and are so busy with their projects that what is happening around them is invisible to them... I am not one of them, I feel free to take care of anything other than my studies or my professional advancement.

I do not find that our tiny contribution to trying to correct injustices is such a sacrifice on our part. At harvest, we do not risk our lives or safety. The case of volunteers, such as Leslie, Moshe and Isaac, injured near Burin, is unusual and new. In most cases, the army intervenes even before the settlers can do anything. So we are protected and the Israeli army will never hurt us. This is not true for Palestinians. Their only option is to suffer settler violence, the arbitrariness of the army or, ultimately, to leave their country... How many young people from Palestine (or even Israel) leave for Europe when they can?

Our contribution to the harvest is rather symbolic. It gives us the opportunity to work together, Israelis and Palestinians, side by side, on an equal footing. And, let us not forget, we are here as guests of the Palestinians."

↬ Gil Hammerschlag


The drama of olive picking is only one aspect of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Water confiscation, for example, affects both pastoral activity and agriculture in many ways. Food insecurity now affects one third of the population...

Through violence against the civilian population, as well as the transfer and installation of its settlers, the occupying force violates article 147 of the Geneva Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of 12 August 1949, ratified by Israel. This article defines “serious offences” as those

which include any of the following acts, if committed against persons or property protected by the Convention: intentional killing, torture or inhuman treatment, including biological experiments, wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, unlawful deportation or transfer, unlawful detention, forcing a protected person to serve in the armed forces of the enemy Power, or to deprive it of its right to be judged regularly and impartially in accordance with the provisions of this Convention, the taking of hostages, the destruction and appropriation of property not justified by military necessity and carried out on a large scale in an unlawful and arbitrary manner.

For those who believe in the human community and peace, it is a matter of working for respect for international law violated by the occupation, without taking sides with either side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To understand the reality of the colonisation, you may come to the place. According to Dominique Vidal, “people are no longer the same when they return....” [5].

It is understandable that harvested under these conditions, the olives of Palestine have a decidedly bitter aftertaste...

↬ Johanna Schreiner

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