For Palestinians, the olive harvest is both an economic lifeline and a symbol of resistance. That is why Israel has taken advantage of the attention on Gaza to kill and terrorise farmers across the West Bank.

Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Amjad, a 45-year-old olive harvester living in the city of Qalqilya in the West Bank, has worked on a plot of land since the age of seven. The land, which has been in his family for generations, holds a special significance. ‘Working on the land is a form of worship and one of the rituals of our daily life,’ he says. 

Olive season takes place annually between October and November in Palestine. It is supposed to be a contemplative time for farmers like Amjad to work on their land. But this year, in particular, it has become a battleground, as even more farmers than usual have been prohibited from going to pick their olives. When Amjad went to his land on 8 October with his mother and brother (farmers often bring family members to help them during olive season), they were met with around 20 armed Jewish settlers shouting obscenities at them and threatening to shoot them if they didn’t leave immediately.

‘We were expelled from our land and prevented from taking our food and necessary supplies,’ says Amjad. He was made to leave behind his picking machine and the olives he’d harvested. When Amjad returned on 24 October in the hope of being able to harvest his olives, he was once again hounded off the land. ‘The soldiers expelled us again, without giving me even a minute to shut off the water source. He said, “Go away, otherwise I will confiscate your car.”’

Emboldened by Israel’s latest bombardment of Gaza, settlers in the West Bank have been accelerating their goal of ethnically cleansing Palestinans from their land. With all eyes on Gaza, much less attention has been paid to the West Bank, allowing settlers to act with impunity. Since 7 October, at least 242 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank, 3,200 people have been arrested, and villages and cities have been placed under lockdown, preventing Palestinians from travelling outside their towns.

State Complicity

Settler violence is being aided and abetted by Israel’s far-right government, and it is often done with the backing of the Israeli military, as Israeli soldiers stand guard, preventing a Palestinian response. Sometimes, the attacks take place with the military’s involvement. After 7 October, Ben Gvir, Israel’s security minister, distributed thousands of guns to settlers.

Much of the violence has been concentrated in Area C, which constitutes about 60 percent of the West Bank and is where the majority of illegal Israeli settlers live. It is also where most of the olive trees are situated. Many olive harvesters are only able to nurture and pick their trees in these areas after receiving a permit from Israeli authorities (this permit is sometimes refused, and even if it is granted, it usually does not give farmers enough time to pick their trees). But since 7 October, in these areas, farmers haven’t been allowed to reach their lands at all, with the IDF warning them that if they do, they will be shot. 

 

The violence towards farmers peaked on 29 October, when a settler killed Bilal Saleh as he was harvesting olives near the West Bank city of Nablus. His wife and four children, as well as his siblings and some other family members, were there when he was shot in the chest by the settler, with the Israeli army watching.

 

Settlers don’t just commit physical attacks on Palestinian farmer’s bodies, but violent attacks on their land. These tactics are nothing new, with Israeli assaults on farmers and their lands typically soaring every olive harvest season. Since 1967, more than 800,000 Palestinian olive trees have been illegally uprooted by Israeli authorities and settlers. Israeli settlers will burn down, poison and bulldoze trees, and block the water source. In other instances, they’ll steal the olives for themselves. 

Since 7 October, such assaults have been happening with greater frequency. Nasser Abufarha, the founder of Canaan Fair Trade — a supplier of olive oil based in Jenin — says that the attacks now feel more ‘severe’ and ‘systematic’. ‘It’s not just separate incidents,’ he says. ‘It looks like organised attacks by settler organisations. The settlers feel they have a licence to commit this violence against the farmers.’ 

Abufarha says that the settler violence towards Palestinian olive farmers had already been worsening over recent years, particularly since Israel’s far-right government came into power last year. Israel has ramped up its settlement expansion, with Netanyahu’s administration giving the green light for a record 13,000 settlement units in the West Bank, making 2023 already the highest year on record in terms of approvals. Even before 7 October, 2023 was the deadliest year on record for Palestinians living in the West Bank, with Israeli forces killing at least 181 Palestinians by September (2022 marked the second deadliest year, with 150 Palestinians killed). However, while the violence olive farmers endure is nothing new, the total block on Palestinian olive harvesters accessing their land in Area C is something Abufarha describes as unprecedented.   

Anwar, an olive farmer from Nablus, is no stranger to settler attacks on his land. Earlier this year, settlers burned large areas of his land, causing his family to lose around 120 ten-year-old trees. But this olive season, the attacks are the ‘most violent’ he has seen compared to previous years. Anwar claims that settlers have been deploying a range of intimidation methods to scare off farmers. ‘They take pictures of farmers and their families, circulate them, inciting people to kill them,’ he says.

Perseverance

The latest wave of settler attacks will inevitably have a devastating economic impact on Palestinians living in the occupied territories. Olive trees contribute to 14 percent of Palestine’s economy, with agriculture being the foundation of Palestinian exports. The production of these goods provides the population with the sustenance and financial support it needs. Amid high unemployment levels in the region, these farms are the primary source of income for about 800,000 Palestinian families. 

Abufarha estimates that there will be a loss of approximately 50 million dollars due to this year’s violence. ‘For some farmers, this is their entire livelihood,’ says Abufarha. ‘If that income is not there, these families will have a very difficult year.’

Amjad is concerned about how he will be able to provide for his family members. ‘When a farmer is prevented from reaping his crop… he will certainly be exposed to a bad life that year,’ he says. He says he will likely be forced to seek help from institutions who purchase the olive oil to compensate for what he has lost.

Nitham, another Palestinian olive farmer, is also concerned about how he will provide for his five family members. ‘It is a tragic situation, to be prevented from working on your land and cultivating it, especially when it is your only source of income,’ he says. Nitham says that because of the lockdown, it has become virtually impossible for him to find work elsewhere. ‘Palestinian farmers suffer as no one else suffers,’ he says. ‘There is no party to support them, defend their rights, or protect them.’

Olive trees don’t just hold monetary value for Palestinians, but hold a deep symbolic meaning. ‘Our relationship with the olive tree is like a father’s relationship with his children,’ says Anwar. The trees are drought resistant, and can survive in harsh conditions, with many dating back hundreds of years, long before the Israeli occupation. In this sense, they have become a symbol of Palestinian resilience.

‘This way of life is a form of resistance. [Israel] doesn’t want the farmers to sustain their land,’ says Abufarha. ‘So, for them to continue to cultivate their olives is an expression of life, and of perseverance.’

‘These olive trees have been passed down through generations and they connect us with the land and the past,’ Abufarha continues. ‘An attack on olive farms is an attack on this relationship.’

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