New Internationalist

The eye sees, but the hand can’t reach

Issue 428

Palestinian proverb reflects bitter truth for olive farmers

Ahikam Seri / Panos
A wall runs through it: a Palestinian olive grove cut in two by the separation barrier. Ahikam Seri / Panos

The view from Salah Tahir’s house in Jayyous is breathtaking. The fields stretch for miles. The soil, covered with olive, fruit and vegetable trees, is an agricultural paradise.

Tahir, also called Abu Kifah, has lived in this village of 3,500 inhabitants all his life. He is a farmer, and his love for his land is unwavering.

His house sits at the end of a narrow road. A tractor is parked at the entrance, and in a corner of the garden is a pile of jift (ground olive pits) – signs of a farming family. Over a cup of sweet tea with mint, he and his wife, Um Kifah, explain the problems that many Palestinian farmers face.

Harvesting the olives from the generations-old trees used to be a joyful family event. However, the Segregation Wall, built in 2003 between Israel and the Occupied Territories, cut deep into West Bank lands. Jayyous lost approximately 700 hectares to the wall and 200 hectares to the nearby settlement of Zufim. Five wells and 4,000 trees were uprooted.

The wall, which separates Jayyous’ residents from their fields, consists of barbed wire, two gates (one unused) and metal fences, and is patrolled by Israeli soldiers. Some 10,000 Jayyousi trees are now on the Israeli side of the wall.

Although Jayyous is in Palestine, Israel has jurisdiction over who can and cannot pass through the wall. ‘Each household is issued one permit, usually for older and younger people. One gate leading to the fields is opened three times a day for half an hour,’ explains Abu Kifah.

Abu Kifah owns 0.2 hectares of land and 100 olive trees. For six years, he has been prohibited from going to his land, the land that Israel is now claiming as its own. ‘I have to hire and pay someone to pick my olives,’ he complains. The olive season used to be a profitable business, but this year things are different. ‘My trees used to produce half a tonne of olives, from which I made 300 kilograms of oil. This year my trees produced only a small fraction of that.’

To compensate, he now owns a small store where he sells chickens, and his wife Um Kifah keeps honey bees. She is desperate to find a buyer for 200 kilograms of honey.

Abu Kifah does at least still have his trees. What about the farmer who lost 150 trees to the saws of Israelis settling on West Bank land, and the farmers who lost over 120 hectares of trees to fires caused by settlers? And those who need the presence of international volunteers to act as a barrier between them and the settlers? Should Abu Kifah consider himself ‘lucky’?

He points to his trees in the distance. ‘I dream of being on my land, and my children want to go there too. I am not comfortable not being able to get to it. It is only 10 minutes away,’ he says, with sadness. The leaves are curled and dusty, and the sand is dry, the land’s owner unable to tend lovingly to it.

Noreen Sadik

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