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A harvest of tears: Palestinian agriculture continues to suffer as a result of ruthless Israeli policies

October 19, 2011 at 3:14 pm

Palestinian man sorts olives cleaned by a machine before pressing it to be made into oil at an olive press in Gaza City October 6, 2016. [Ashraf Amra / Apa Images]

Olive production

It is olive harvest season once again in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs) and something unusual is taking place, something unique to this region. Unlike most harvests around the world which are collected either by local farmers or migrant workers, in the case of Palestine people are literally flying in from all over the globe, albeit in very small numbers, in order to participate in the olive picking season. This is not due to a cultural tradition or as a communal celebration or festival, but to a sense of solidarity. These are international solidarity campaigners who fly to the Holy Land to stand side-by-side with Palestinian farmers in order to be witnesses and, frequently, protectors for the farmers as they attempt to harvest their meagre crops while being brutalised by Israeli soldiers and illegal Jewish settlers who try to stop them.

The fruit of the olive tree is deeply symbolic to the Palestinian people; it is their most popular and enduring crop. The olive tree is connected to the land of Palestine historically, culturally and even spiritually, with the olive being mentioned as a blessed fruit in the Qur’an and the Bible. Olive trees can live for hundreds of years and generations of families look after the same trees. They are an enduring part of many Palestinians’ heritage and create a special bond between the people and their land. An attack on the harvest and the trees by Jewish settlers and the Israeli authorities is therefore also an attack on the culture and identity of the entire Palestinian people.

An attack on Palestinian livelihood

Olives comprise “25% of the total agricultural production in the West Bank”ii and olives and their by-products, including soap, olive oil, etc., are one of the most robust elements of the Palestinian economy. However, this source of income is being targeted ruthlessly and has become the focus of a concerted campaign by Israel to force Palestinians off their land and, in the process, degrade and demoralise them. Palestinian farmers have had their land stolen, their crops set on fire, their trees uprooted, and their farms fenced-off beyond their reach and bricked up behind the Separation Wall, and so on. Their orchards have been razed to make way for the building of ever more illegal settlements and racist settler-only roads, and to make way for the continued construction of the illegal “apartheid” wall as well as for no other reason than simply to grab more Palestinian land.

Whereas in the past the olive harvest traditionally provided employment for thousands upon thousands of people in each region, with families working together to bring in the crops, to press the olives, to manufacture the by-products (and to export them), there are now fewer people who can earn a living this way; as a result, Palestinian families are struggling desperately. In 2010 alone it is estimated that “Israeli forces and settlers uprooted or burnt at least 10,346 olive trees in the West Bank.”iii In Gaza it is estimated by the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Agriculture, that Israeli forces have “destroyed at least 114,000 olive trees in the strip since the outbreak of the Palestinian Intifada in 2000.”iv In fact, conservative estimates put the number of olive trees destroyed by the Israelis since the creation of the Zionist state on Palestinian land in 1948 at more than one million; of those, around half have been destroyed since 1987.

Moreover, it is not only olive production which has been affected. While olives and olive trees certainly form the bedrock of the Palestinian agricultural economy, and have a unique connection to Palestinian culture and history, they are by no means the only agricultural produce to come under attack. The whole Palestinian agricultural sector is threatened by the Israeli authorities in a number of ways. In Gaza, for example, the production of all crops is suffering not least because of Israel’s designation of “no go” zones and “high risk” zones. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the OPTs (UN-OCHA), 17% of Gaza is now classified as one form of danger zone or another and is therefore inaccessible to farmers who risk being shot and killed by Israeli snipers if they attempt to set foot in those areas, let alone farm there; remember, this is the Palestinians’ own land. Of that 17%, approximately 95%v is now out of bounds and can no longer be used even though it is arable land. It is further estimated that a staggering “35% of Gaza’s cultivable land is located within the restricted area”. This obviously has a serious effect in terms of the local economy.

As the UN-OCHA report states, “Considering that the large majority of the restricted area on land is agricultural and comprises some 35 per cent of Gaza’s cultivable land, it is not surprising that agriculture-related assets, including fruit trees, greenhouses, chicken and sheep farms and water wells account for 90 per cent of all asset losses. The total value of this property was estimated at USD 275 million. Within this category, the most valuable type of asset is fruit bearing trees, including olive, almond, citrus and grapes. These trees, which take years to grow and maintain before yielding a profitable income, account for more than 213 million [dollars], or 77 per cent of all agricultural losses, followed by greenhouses (47 million [dollars]), water wells (9 million [dollars]), sheep farms (4.5 million [dollars]) and chicken farms (2 million [dollars]).”

Source: UN-OCHA

vi Furthermore, in the UN-OCHA report “Between the fence and a hard place – The humanitarian impact of Israeli – imposed restrictions on access to land and sea in the Gaza strip” it states: “The value of agricultural and other property destroyed in the past five years in the land restricted area is conservatively estimated at USD 308 million (replacement cost). Agriculture-related assets include fruit trees, greenhouses, chicken and sheep farms and water wells, and account for 90 per cent of this cost. It has been further estimated that access restrictions and the related destruction of agricultural assets results in a yearly loss of approximately 75,000 metric tons of potential produce. The market value of this produce is conservatively estimated at USD 50.2 million a year. Most farmers… indicated that since the expansion of the restricted area in 2008, their income from agriculture has been reduced to less than a third of its previous amount. Others reported having their income wiped out.”vii

Official Israeli policy – levelling and confiscating the land

One way that the Israeli authorities destroy the crops of Palestinian farmers is by levelling the farmland using armoured tractors and bulldozers and simply razing the crops and groves. In the occupied West Bank, according to the Palestine Centre for Human Rights Annual Report for 2010, “Israel confiscated and/or levelled at least 13,149 dunums of land [around 3,250 acres] across the West Bank; this figure includes areas of land annexed by Israeli settlers but does not include closed areas, such as the Jordan Valley in the east of the West Bank, access to which by Palestinians is prohibited by Israeli forces.” Israeli soldiers themselves are responsible for much of the destruction. A farmer from Gaza describes being present when “Israeli soldiers fired small bombs into his field, which soon after caught ablaze.” He explained that, “The Israeli soldiers fired from their jeeps, causing a fire to break out on the land. They burned the wheat, burned the pomegranate trees… The fire spread across the valley. We called the fire brigades. They came to the area and put out the fire. But in some places the fire started again.” Safadi estimates that he lost “30,000 square metres to the blaze, including 300 pomegranate trees, 150 olive trees, and wheat.”viiiAnother Israeli method is to issue military orders demanding that farmers refrain from picking their crops and then arrest them if they refuse to comply. Another common method is simply to set fire to the fields.

Settler attacks on farmers and agricultural land

It is not only the Israeli government and soldiers who make life miserable for Palestinian farmers but also illegal Jewish settlers, who are given a free rein by the Israeli authorities to wreak havoc in the OPTs. Settler attacks take many forms, including the burning of fields and trees; digging-up trees, both ancient and saplings; beating-up farmers who tend their crops, and so on. The reasons for these attacks include “price tag” or revenge attacks whereby the uprooting or burning of trees is said to be in “retaliation” for Palestinian acts of resistanceix and, bizarrely, the removal of settlement outposts (illegal even under Israeli law) by Israeli security forces. It is also done to intimidate Palestinians and make life as difficult as possible to “encourage” them to leave their land.While some attacks take place in broad daylight by brazen settlers who know they can get away with it, other acts of arson, vandalism and violence are committed under cover of darkness. It is common to read news items like the following: “This morning Maher Abu Sab’a’ discovered that 248 out of the 250 olive tree saplings that had recently been planted on his land had been destroyed over-night. The saplings which had been planted three months previously had been systematically uprooted from the earth and broken with their remains left scattered over the earth… The attack took place right next to the Israeli checkpoint and watch tower on road 60, however it would appear that there was no intervention in the attack.”xNot only do such attacks usually go unchallenged by the Israeli soldiers and other authorities who turn a blind eye to settler outrages, but settler attacks are also given the religious go-ahead by extremist rabbis. In 2002, for example, “Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu, Israel’s former chief rabbi, issued a religious edict allowing Jewish settlers to steal Palestinian olive crops in their respective areas.”xi

This sort of pronouncement encourages settlers to rampage through Palestinian farms stealing and destroying Palestinian property.Headlines like these are appearing far too frequently: Palestinian Trees Destroyed in On-going Settler Vandalism, Harassment; Israel destroying Gaza’s farmlands; Jewish settlers uproot hundreds of Palestinian olive trees; 300 Trees uprooted in Salfit village by IOF; Olive Trees uprooted in Jayyous apparently to make Room for another Settlement; Settlers Set Fire to Palestinian Crops Near Hebron.This has been a matter of concern highlighted by UN Special Rapporteurs. According to the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, “The ongoing demolition of agricultural and livelihood structures has exacerbated food insecurity amongst Palestinians in the West Bank… Herder communities have lost access to water for their animals, farmers have been evicted from their land, and Bedouin communities have been especially affected by these demolitions – sometimes having had their property destroyed on repeated occasions.” In addition, the Special Rapporteur “expressed concern about the loss of livelihoods due to unchecked attacks by Israeli settlers on Palestinian-owned productive land and natural resources.” (27th Sept 2011)xii


The destruction of Palestinian property in a way which results in the mass deprivation of traditional sources of livelihood for entire communities should be a matter of concern to all human rights advocates. The fact that this is being done by a regime which is conducting a military occupation of the land of a native population in breach of the Geneva Conventions and all standards of moral decency is a disgrace. It is a cowardly act to attack the source of income for a people already struggling under that occupation and living with the threat of arrest, harassment and death. It is a matter which should be addressed by the international community as a matter of urgency. Furthermore, the destruction of agricultural land and the razing of crops, trees and farmland should be a cause of serious concern to all environmental activists. Organisations like Greenpeace, environmental campaigners and ecologists the world over should broaden the scope of their concerns to include the wanton destruction of millions of trees, huge swathes of farm land and other environmental hazards created by the Israeli regime. The uprooting and burning of trees is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of Israel’s environmental violations. There is also the significant pollution of the land and water supplies of Gaza through the Israelis’ use of hazardous and toxic munitions such as white phosphorous. The long-term effect of this is still being calculated in terms of its harmful impact on human beings, plants and animals. The environmental catastrophe affecting wildlife habitats in the OPTs is another way by which Israel is guilty of inflicting collective punishment on the Palestinians. This should not be overlooked by the international community and must be challenged before there is nothing left to save.For the latest “OLIVE HARVEST FACTSHEET” from OCHA – Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs occupied Palestinian territory (October 2011) click on the link.

i. International solidarity groups which take part in harvest programmes include groups such as Zaytoun, the   Alternative Tourism Group and the Joint Advocacy Initiative of the East Jerusalem YMCA.

ii. “Destroying Palestinian Olive Trees” The Globalist, César Chelala, Saturday, November 13, 2010

iii. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights Annual Report 2010, p22iv. Israeli siege harms Gaza olive cultivation Oct 11th 2011 v. 59,500 dunums or 59.5 km2

vi. UN-OCHA-WFP Power point presentation

vii. UN-OCHA report: BETWEEN THE FENCE AND A HARD PLACE Special Focus – August 2010

viii. Israel destroying Gaza’s farmlands, Eva Bartlett, Electronic Intifada, 22nd May 2009

ix. “Palestinian olive trees destroyed in West Bank attack” The Jordan Times, Oct 17th 2011

x. Olive trees destroyed outside Bethlehem, International Solidarity Movement, 31st May 2011

xi. Jewish settlers destroy olive groves By Amal Hamdan Wednesday 05 November 2003