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Palestinians will lose 2024’s olive harvest if Israel continues blocking access to land

February 21, 2024 at 4:30 pm

Tayseer Amarneh standing near an olive tree in the ‘West Bank’ side of the Separation Wall in December 2023 [OCHA]

The 2023 olive harvest season was particularly difficult for Palestinian farmers in the West Bank. Taking place around September-November, it coincided with the 7 October attack on Israel and the escalation of hostilities in the Gaza Strip. During that time, Palestinians across the West Bank faced a spike in movement restrictions and violence by Israeli forces and Israeli settlers.

For Palestinian olive harvesters, this resulted in immense hardships as they often could not access their olives. More than 96,000 dunums (96 square kilometres) of olive-cultivated lands across the West Bank remained unharvested following the 2023 season, due to Israeli restrictions on Palestinian access. They include cultivated olives in four types of locations:

– Behind the West Bank Separation Wall, in the so-called “Seam Zone”;

– Bordering the Separation Wall, within 150 metres on the “West Bank” side;

– Near illegal settlements, where scheduled military permissions (referred to as “prior coordination”) have traditionally been required;

– In other areas adjacent to settlements;

In previous years, the Israeli authorities would require a so-called “prior coordination”, in fact a scheduled Israeli military permission, allowing farmers to access their lands in certain areas. However, in the 2023 season, the Israeli authorities cancelled almost all of these approvals, effectively preventing farmers from accessing their lands. Agricultural gates along the West Bank Separation Wall remained overwhelmingly closed.

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According to the Food Security Sector, a partnership of dozens of humanitarian organisations, Palestinian farmers suffered an estimated total loss of more than 1,200 metric tonnes of olive oil in the 2023 season, resulting in a direct financial setback of $10 million. The impact was particularly harsh in the northern governorates of Tulkarm, Qalqiliya and Nablus.

An infographic showcasing the restricted olive groves across Palestine [OCHA]

The olive harvest is a key economic, social and cultural event for Palestinians. As the Occupying Power, Israel should ensure that Palestinians are able to participate in, and fully benefit from, this activity. This includes ensuring that farmers can access their olive trees throughout the year, and that their trees and agricultural property are protected from damage and theft.

Additionally, during September-November, OCHA documented 113 harvest-related cases where Israeli settlers attacked Palestinians, damaged their trees or stole crops and harvesting tools. Of these, ten incidents resulted in casualties and property damage, another ten resulted in casualties but not property damage and 93 incidents resulted in damage but not casualties. Over 2,000 trees were vandalised during these incidents. The highest numbers of incidents were recorded in the governorates of Nablus (40) and Ramallah (31). OCHA estimates that, overall in 2023, over 10,000 Palestinian-owned olive trees were vandalised presumably by settlers across the West Bank.

On 28 October, a 29-year-old Palestinian, a father of four, was shot and killed by an Israeli settler while harvesting olives in As Sawiya village, south of Nablus. Bullet holes were observed in his chest and left forearm.

On at least 38 occasions, Palestinian farmers or other eyewitnesses reported that Israeli forces had accompanied the attackers or that the latter had been wearing military uniforms while expelling Palestinians from farmlands or taking over olives and tools.

The Separation Wall

Palestinians in about 150 Palestinian communities across the West Bank have olive farmlands in the area between the Green Line and the West Bank Wall. Through litigation, farmers have long ago managed to increase the number of gates erected by the Israeli authorities along the Wall. While 69 such gates have been designated for farming purposes, year-round access is not allowed through most of them. Instead, most agricultural gates would only open during the olive harvest season, for a limited time every day. That said, in the aftermath of 7 October, the Israeli authorities decided to keep all of them closed. Gates only opened for the 2023 harvest on an exceptional basis, between 24 and 30 November, while a humanitarian pause was implemented in Gaza and Israel.

Additionally, Palestinian farmers report that Israeli forces prevented them from accessing olive-cultivated lands that are not isolated by the Wall but are within about 150 metres of it, on the “West Bank” side.

An infographic showing the separation wall affecting olive yield [OCHA]

OCHA’s monitoring in the northern West Bank shows that the 2023 olive yield in the area isolated by the Separation Wall was 93 per cent lower compared with the yield in accessible areas.

“Alongside this season’s reduction in yield, the repercussions will continue into the next season if the gates stay closed and we lose the ploughing and pruning schedule,” Taysir Amarneh, is a farmer in Akkaba village, in the northern governorate of Tulkarm, said.

The access of Palestinians to olive-cultivated lands is also restricted by the presence of illegal Israeli settlements and practices associated with them.

Palestinians in at least 110 communities across the West Bank own land within or near 56 Israeli settlements. Much of this land has long ago been declared by the Israeli authorities a “closed military zone” and may only be accessed by Palestinian farmers through special authorisation by the Israeli authorities, which could be granted for limited days during the harvest and ploughing seasons.

Access denied

Almost half of the lands that required scheduled military permissions are in Nablus governorate, followed by Salfit and Qalqiliya, while the remainder are distributed between Ramallah, Hebron and Bethlehem governorates. However, in the 2023 season, the Israeli authorities did not authorise such access in most locations that typically required scheduled authorisation.

In addition, Palestinian farmers were denied access to their olive trees in Area C of the West Bank where these lands had previously been accessible without any kind of restrictions. These new restrictions were marked by earth mounds, closed road gates and cement blocks. Furthermore, denial of access was also reported in Area B of the West Bank; for instance, farmers were denied access to about 700 dunums (0.7 square kilometres) in Qaryut village (Nablus), and 1,900 dunums (1.9 square kilometres) in Turmus’ayya (Ramallah).

According to people in the village of Turmus’ayya, over 180 Palestinian farmers had said they could not access their land that is located near the Israeli settlement of Shilo or its illegal “outposts” (unofficial settlement areas) during the 2023 season.

“Not only did we experience 70 per cent loss in this season’s production, but we also witnessed our olive fruits in the adjacent inaccessible groves falling to the ground, as we were unable to harvest them. On top of that, we grapple daily with challenges to meet our basic needs, all while having to ‘coordinate’ every movement with the Israeli forces stationed near my house,” said Abdullah Abu Awwad from Turmusa’yya.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.