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Israel is exploiting the war in Gaza to deny Palestinians access to their West Bank land

December 18, 2023 at 3:48 pm

Nidal Rabie next to a new planted tree [Lina Taamallah]

Abla Lafi is 59 and from the village of Turmus Ayya, north of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. She is passionate when speaking about her olive groves, which the Israeli army and illegal Jewish settlers prevent the villagers from harvesting.

“This is our own land,” she said defiantly. “How dare they prevent us from entering it and picking olives from the trees as if we were thieves? We planted them with our own hands. The settlers are the thieves and we are the owners of the land.”

October and November make up the main olive harvest season for Palestinian farmers. Thousands of families depend on a good crop for their livelihood. Around 45 per cent of agricultural land in the occupied West Bank is planted with an estimated 10 million olive trees, producing between 32-35,000 metric tons of olive oil every year.

This year, due to the war on Gaza, settlers and the Israeli army are preventing thousands of farmers from reaching their olive groves. Last month, the occupation state’s extreme far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich called on the Israeli government to prohibit Palestinians in the West Bank from harvesting their olive trees. According to Smotrich, Israel needs to establish “sterile security zones” with no Palestinian presence around settlements and settler-only roads. It looks as if the Israeli occupation forces are implementing this policy in order to block Palestinians from getting to their own land.

“Extensive damage to land and trees and stringent movement and access restrictions by Israeli forces hamper access to olive trees, especially those close to settlements,” the UN has reported. “At the end of November, an initial estimate indicates [that] 800,000 dunums of land have not been harvested due to Israeli settler violence and access restrictions.”

Olives not only have economic importance to Palestinians, but are also symbolic of their roots, resilience and attachment to the land. For the Palestinians, the olive tree represents their spirit and identity.

“We used to go to work on the land with joy and love for all family members, men, women, children and animals, because cultivation means belonging to the land, a feeling which we pass on to our children and grandchildren,” explained Lafi. “The olive season is like Eid for us; we celebrate its blessings with joy and happiness, even the taste of its food is different.” However, she added, since the establishment of the illegal Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, the locals have lived through the olive season in an atmosphere of fear, anxiety and terror from the settlers and the army. “The anxiety and sadness have increased this year due to the war on Gaza.”

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The head of the agricultural committee in the village, Nidal Rabie, confirmed that since the war against the Palestinians in Gaza started, the settlers and settlement guards have stopped local residents from reaching their olive groves in the plain adjacent to the illegal settlements built on lands confiscated from the village. “They expelled us as recently as today,” said Rabie. “We tried to access our land, but they came and expelled us at gunpoint.”

The 61-year-old Palestinian farmer who holds US citizenship, added: “We are now in the middle of December trying to pick our olives to no avail. Every farmer who tries to pick olives is shot at. If we wait any longer, the olives will be ruined and the quality of the oil will become low and inedible.”

Although the settlers and soldiers obstruct the olive harvest every year, explained Rabie, sometimes the Palestinians succeed in harvesting at least part within hours and days determined by the Israeli army. “This year the soldiers prevented us from harvesting any olives in the plain. I personally own 30 dunums that I am not able to harvest at all.”

A few days ago, the army even stormed Turmus Ayya at night and confiscated 50 vehicles belonging to the villagers, because they were used in agricultural work. Altogether, around 2,500 dunums belonging to the villagers but adjacent to the illegal settlements have not been allowed to be harvested. “They would have produced around 70,000 litres of olive oil,” he added.

Palestinian farmers in the village are also prevented from cultivating their own land next to which illegal settlements have been built. Mishal Al-Quq, 43, said that he used to live in the US and went back to Palestine two years ago to take care of the land and cultivate it. “This year we are facing a big problem in growing wheat in the plain east of the village as we are prohibited from working there by the occupation army, but now is the season for planting seeds. We must plant quickly, otherwise it will be too late.” Wheat is very important and is a basic crop for the villagers, he said. “We must grow it.” This was confirmed by Rabie, who pointed out that he had bought wheat and barley seeds, but did not know whether he would be able to plant them or not.

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The Israeli destruction of the olive groves unmasks a fact that not many in the West know about; it’s often heard that Israelis hold dual US citizenship, but we don’t hear so much about Palestinian Americans. It is estimated that between 45-60,000 Palestinian Americans live in the occupied West Bank, according to Reuters. However, this does not stop Israel from targeting them. They are treated by the apartheid state as Palestinians and have no “American” privileges. For instance, Israel prevents Palestinian Americans from entering the US from the West Bank, an apparent violation of a recent agreement in which citizens from the US and Israel can travel to the other country without a visa. According to Rabie, most of the residents of Turmus Ayya hold dual Palestinian and US citizenship, but the US government doesn’t provide any protection to the farmers. “Some villagers who hold American citizenship contacted the US Embassy and asked for protection to work on our own land. But the embassy said that it could only assist in securing travel to the United States. This would mean displacing us from our land in Turmus Ayya.”

Although the Biden administration has declared the intention to deny visas to violent settlers, Rabie doubts that it will happen. “This was only propaganda. Biden’s true position was clear when he said that if there was no Israel, the US would have to create one. This shows Washington’s collusion with Israel.”

Abla Lafi believes that the goal of Israeli “harassment” is to seize the Palestinian land close to the illegal settlements that were established on stolen land which contains olive trees that have been cultivated for hundreds of years. “They have no right or ownership over it,” she insisted. “We inherited the land from our ancestors and we should not be prevented from entering it. Although it is more difficult this year, we have been facing this same problem every year since the establishment of the first settlement, which I remember was Shilo, in 1978, when I was 14 years old. At the beginning, there were mobile homes and the road leading to them ran through our village. The roads were built on lands confiscated from Qaryut and Turmus Ayya, after which they began to spread like a cancer and descended from the hilltop on to our land in the plain and spread to the nearby villages.”

More settlements were built, such as Rachel, Adei Ad, Amichai and other random outposts inhabited by terrorists known as the hilltop youth, she added. “They began terrorising the people, shooting, destroying property and blocking the roads. Before those settlements were built, when I was a child, we used to live peacefully, plough and plant. I have beautiful memories of the different seasons of figs, olives and wheat that we used to grow.”

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Rabie confirmed that settler crimes, the confiscation of land and the cutting down and burning of olive trees in his and other villages, have been carried out constantly by settlers and the Israeli army even before Israel’s latest war against the Palestinians in Gaza. The most ferocious attack by settlers happened on 21 June this year, when hundreds of settlers stormed the village killing Omar Qutain, burning dozens of houses and cars, and hundreds of olive trees and wheat fields, destroying the village. The Israeli army stood and watched, but did not intervene.

No indictment has been filed against anyone, and this is not an exceptional case. According to Yesh Din, out of a thousand cases regarding acts of violence committed by settlers between 2005 and 2021, 93 per cent were closed without an indictment.

“These attacks did not and will not stop farmers from continuing to work on their land,” said Rabie. “If we stop cultivating the land, the Israeli authorities will exploit that to claim that the land is no man’s land, confiscate it and give it to the settlers. They did this before.”

This was a reference to Israel’s use in 1979 of an Ottoman land law of 1858 which stipulates that if private land is not cultivated for three years in a row it becomes state property. “At which point Israel hands it over to the settlers.”

Abla Lafi is determined that these Israeli attacks and policies will not discourage Palestinian farmers from cultivating their land. “I love my land and I love the fertile plain. This is the land that was watered by the sweat of the farmers and the blood of the martyrs who fell defending it: Joda Awad shot dead by the Israeli army in 1988, and Khamis Abu Awad, who was killed by a settler in 1993 while ploughing the land. Minister Ziad Abu Ain was also martyred in the plain defending the land and so was, most recently, Omar Al-Qotain this summer. We cannot give up on the land that many died to defend. We will pass it on to our children.”

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