A bitter harvest for Palestine’s olive growers
Abdulla Abu Bakr stands at the side of the narrow road. With one arm stretched out, he points in the distance. ‘My olive trees are there. Can you see them, right in front of the wall? You can even see where the fire was.’
There they stand, the burned olive trees, blurred by the drizzle falling from a grey sky. A short walk takes us to the top of the steep road. At the bottom of the road lies Izbet Shufa, and higher up the hill, at the opposite end of the road, are two arrows – one points to the right, to the Palestinian village of Shufa, and the other points to the left, to Avne Hefez, an illegal Israeli settlement.
Abu Bakr is from Shufa, a village surrounded by rolling hills and centuries-old olive trees. With a wave of his hand, his friend and neighbour, 74-year-old Abu el-Abed, welcomes me to his home. Signs of a farming life are everywhere. Chickens roam free, as do goats and a donkey. Standing against a wall in one unfurnished room are large bags of newly picked olives and bottles of freshly pressed olive oil.
His sparsely furnished living room soon fills. His brother Hamdan Hamdan, a retired English teacher, and several children, sit quietly while his wife, Dalal, makes strong Arabic coffee. Abu Bakr, who works in construction, owns approximately 30 acres of agricultural land. Abu el-Abed owns 50 acres.
The olive trees and their harvest have a special significance for the families. Seeing the fruit of a year’s cultivation doesn’t just bring them joy; it is part of their livelihoods.
But things changed when Avne Hefez was established in 1987. According to the Land Research Center, Shufa occupied 1,200 hectares of land, of which 700 hectares were confiscated for settlement use.
Watchtowers and surveillance cameras were placed along the road leading to the settlement to monitor movement around the village. Huge cement slabs were put in the middle of road which runs between Shufa and Izbet Shufa, further separating the two parts of the village, and separating the residents from their families and lands.
‘Because of this roadblock,’ Hamdan Hamdan complains, ‘we had to travel 27 kilometres to reach the other part of the village or to reach our land which is only one and a half kilometres away.’
For 10 years the cement slabs blocked the road. However, they have since been removed – but only pushed to the side: a reminder that they can easily be put back.
Resiliance, resistance and sumud
By the end of 2010, the population of Avne Hefez had risen to 1,553. Izbet Shufa and Shufa are home to approximately 3,000 people.
Abu Bakr owns approximately 400 trees. He angrily recalls the day that they were burned. ‘Three months ago, 100 of my trees were burned, by settlers, and last year another 100 were uprooted,’ he says. ‘And two years ago, 200 trees, half of what I own, were burned.’
He continues: ‘When they are burned, it takes about three to four years for them to grow again and produce olives.’ This year, Abu Bakr lost approximately 800 kilos of olives, which translates into 200 kilos of olive oil. He estimates that he lost over $1,000.
His trees represent a tiny number of the olive trees in Palestine. Today, eight million olive trees cover close to half of Palestine’s agricultural land. Approximately 80,000 families depend on the olive industry for their livelihoods.
Olive trees have a special significance for Palestinians. Not only do they provide a source of income, they symbolize Palestinians’ attachment to the land. Politically, olive trees are a symbol of Palestinian resilience, resistance and steadfastness (sumud) against the Israeli occupation.
However, the season often brings many challenges and dangers for Palestinian farmers from the illegal settlements that are scattered on Palestinian land, and in close proximity to Palestinian villages.
According to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), 7,500 trees were damaged or destroyed by Israeli settlers between January and October 2012. Farmers often find their trees uprooted, poisoned, cut or burned, or they discover that the olives were harvested and stolen. Additionally, the flow of sewer from settlements contaminates the land.
Ziv Stahl of Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights organization, says: ‘The phenomenon of tree vandalism continues even more forcefully this year and targets the property and livelihood of many Palestinian families. The police’s failure to enforce the law and protect the Palestinians’ property encourages this phenomenon because the criminals who go unpunished are not deterred from repeating their actions.’
Since 2005, only one of 162 complaints about settler attacks on trees has led to an indictment. Those who have land which lies between the Wall and the Green Line (the 1967 border), and near settlements in the West Bank must obtain permits to access their land. This requirement further hinders the farmers from protecting their crops from the settlers.
According to the UNOCHA, thousands are denied permits because Israel believes they present a security risk, or they cannot prove that they are land owners – according to Israel’s criteria. In 2011, 42 per cent of those who applied were rejected.
Abu Bakr says that settlers often throw stones and swear at his children, and Abu el-Abed complains about the day that he was tied, hand and foot, just because he was on his land
Those who do obtain permits must enter their land through agricultural gates which lie along the Separation Barrier, and are open for limited times. In 2012 there were 73 agricultural gates. Fifty-two of these gates are closed year round, except during the olive season and for limited hours, making it impossible for many farmers to tend to their crops during the year.
Abu Bakr says that settlers often throw stones and swear at his children, and Abu el-Abed complains about the day that he was tied, hand and foot, just because he was on his land.
Because Shufa’s land is not near the Separation Barrier, villagers are not required to obtain permits to have access to their land. However, Israeli soldiers often approach and question them while they are working in their fields in an attempt to force them to leave, questioning their proximity to the settlement wall.
Abu Bakr and Abu el-Abed are not the only Palestinian farmers to suffer at the hands of Israeli settlers and a discriminatory system which turns a blind eye.
This year, 25 ancient olive trees belonging to the Abu Fahaida family were cut down. Fields belonging to farmers in Beitilu were burned, and stones were thrown at the farmers. Two hundred and twenty olive trees, most of them belonging to Ibrahim Salah of Farata, were harvested by settlers, and the olives stolen. Eighty trees in the village of Qaryut were severely damaged, as were trees in al-Mughayir.
Over a two-week period, Yesh Din documented 17 incidences of vandalism of 500 trees, attacks on villagers, and theft of crops. And this was just the beginning of the season. As the season draws to a close, most of the farmers who have suffered at the hands of the settlers remain nameless.
‘When the soldiers question me or try to get me to leave my land, I tell them that these trees were planted on my land generations ago,’ says Abu Bakr. ‘That is better than any permit,’ he adds defiantly, knowing that he is not alone in his heartfelt expression of sumud.