“If the olive trees knew the hand that planted them, their oil would become tears” – Mahmoud Darwish
If there is one symbol of the connection of the indigenous Palestinian people to the land on which they reside, it is that of the olive tree. The Olive tree is not only a source of economic gain for the Palestinian people, but it is also a symbol of their identity and the incredible resilience that they have demonstrated throughout decades of tragedy and pain. It was meant to be an icon of peace and resilience but, during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the olive harvest season has become a source of friction and dispute between the two communities of peoples in Israel-Palestine.
Farmers endure challenging conditions during the year to tend to their trees and reach the time of harvest of the olive. The harvest season is to be the time when farmers gain the fruits of their labour, getting the rewards of their contribution to the land. It is a sad reality that it has turned into a scene of violent interactions among farmers, settler populations and the Israeli military.
The tragic situation manifests itself in three different landscapes: in the area between the Green Line and the separation wall, in lands near the settlements in the West Bank, and in Gaza.
The Israeli narrative is that Israel built the separation wall in the West Bank to protect itself from terrorist activity from within the West Bank area. This is the official Israeli position.
However, in some areas on the path of the separation wall, the wall cuts through Palestinian agricultural lands and villages, separating the farmer population from much of their lands leading to restrictions to access. In order for farmers to access the lands between the separation wall and the Green Line, the government of Israel has established a “permit” system where farmers, their families and their agricultural workers have to apply for “permits” to go through barrier gates to access agricultural lands. Most of these gates are not available during the year and only during the harvest season which is a major impediment to the work of the farmers.
There are heartbreaking examples of farmers who were denied enough permits to harvest their land while other entities used breaches in the separation wall and stole the olives that belonged to the farmers. It is truly heartbreaking to see some farmers lose the fruits of their labour due to restrictions imposed on them.
Farmers living and working near the settlements in the West Bank also face challenges of their own. They face restrictions via the “prior coordination” system in place by Israeli authorities and also via attacks by settlers during the harvest season.
Attacks on olive trees involve the vandalizing and uprooting of olive trees that have been tended to for many years. It takes years for the olive tree to mature and bear fruit. These young olive trees, as well as older and more mature olive trees, are the targets of settler attacks. This affects Palestinian farmers’ efforts and motivation to plant new olive trees due to the fear of their trees being destroyed.
The Israeli District Coordination Office (DCO) schedules specially coordinated days for farmers to access their lands that are in the vicinity of the settlements. However, the number of days assigned by DCO is not adequate or timely and often results in Palestinians losing a portion of their harvest. DCO states that the reason for timing is to avoid conflicts with Jewish holidays. However, at the same time, settlers often have access to the lands while Palestinian farmers were banned.
According to Israeli authorities, these restrictions are put in place to reduce the likelihood and occurrence of terrorist activity by those who would use the olive harvest season as an excuse to find the opportunity to carry out terrorist attacks. It is also stated that restrictions were put in place around “friction points” where violence had taken place in the past.
In the Gaza Strip, dunums of land along the perimeter fence with Israel, that were previously cultivated with olive trees, have been leveled during Israeli incursions in recent years. Gaza farmers face difficulties of their own during the olive harvest season.
Presence of international volunteers and members of the Jewish community during the olive harvest season is very helpful. However, they are also at times subjected to the violent attacks of settler populations.
To conclude, we have to create a solution to this challenge of transforming the olive harvest season from a season of conflict and friction to a season of cooperation and coexistence. I believe there should be a mechanism and a venue where the grievances and narratives of both sides are heard on this issue. This is the path to friendship that we seek.