Friday’s Fact: Constant Attacks against Olive Pickers Proves Activity Is About More than Oil

Settlers cut off branches of trees in the northern West Bank. Souce: International Middle East Media Center

Israeli settlers attacked Palestinian farmers while they were harvesting olives near Nablus in the northern occupied West Bank on Wednesday, according to Ma’an News Network. This attack is a part of a yearly occurrence that coincides with olive picking season. Olive picking season began last week in the northern West Bank and will spread south to the rest of Palestine and also the Gaza Strip over the next few weeks. The season is not only economically significant for thousand of Palestinian families, but it also carries significant political and social meanings of unity and national resistance that are closely tied to Palestinian roots, identity and history.

 

Olive picking season is a traditional economic activity that dominates the Palestinian agricultural scene. A study by the Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute (MAS) shows that of the 183,000 cultivated hectares in Palestine, olive production accounts for 57% of this land. According to the Palestinian Central bureau of Statistics (PCBS), 108,379 tons of olives are produced in Palestine annually; about 80% of it in the West Bank and about 20% in the Gaza Strip and a 2014 report by the Palestinian Trade Centre (PalTrade) reports olive oil produced in Palestine is primarily consumed locally, but on average there is an excess of 4,000 tons of olive oil per year. The biggest markets are likely to be Jordan and Israel, although there is no precise data; the rest is being exported to Europe, North America and the Gulf States; the export of olive products earns more than any other agricultural crops. Nonetheless, its contribution to the Palestinian overall economy hovers around 2% according to the PCBS.

 

According to a report published by the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture, since 2011 until today, settlers have destroyed around 73 thousand olive trees, incurring the farmers’ losses that reached $91 million. In 2015 alone 10,453 Palestinian trees were vandalized, 801 of which during the harvest season, reported the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA). However, attacks by settlers are not limited on Palestinians’ property, but at times also aim at the physical well-being of Palestinians harvesters, with settlers threatening harvesters at gunpoint. As a result of these conditions, as well as the sprawling nature of Israeli illegal settlements, harvest season is one of the most difficult and dangerous times of the year for Palestinians working in the agricultural sector.A part of the legacy of the Oslo Accords is the division of the lands in the West Bank into three nominal areas of control; 1) area “A” in which the PA controls security and civil matters, 2) area “B” which falls under Palestinian civil control but Israeli military control, and 3) area “C” which falls under full Israeli military and civil control. Area C accounts for 61% of the land of the West Bank and includes the vast majority of arable land, while areas A and B are host to the majority of Palestinian build-up areas and population centres. Many parts of area C are restricted to Palestinians that carry permits, while others are not accessible to Palestinians at all, officially out of security concerns. Furthermore, many parts of area C are under constant threat of settler attacks on Palestinian farmers and trees.

 

Hence, over the generations, olive picking has morphed from a purely economic activity to a form of resistance and connecting to their roots. According to a report by UN OCHA, 100,000 Palestinian households, roughly 15% of Palestinian households, rely on the olive business as a primary income. Moreover, it only employs 7.8% of men and 13.1% of women and accounts for 2% of the economy. This explains the importance of the sector, where more people participate in the expensive, low-reward economic activity. Further, the olive tree has come to represent the Palestinian cause and people over the years aside from its economic benefit. This representation is not only symbolic since the Israeli occupation is less likely to confiscate constantly cultivated land as it is protected under the historic Ottoman law.

 

It is from these factors that the season is not only an activity, but a nation-wide event at this historic moment. Various local and international NGOs, including YMCA, the British Consulate and even the PLO, have often used the symbolism to support the people’s perseverance in their land. Thus, the symbolism will remain as long as Palestinians persevere against the occupation.

 

Photograph: Settlers cut off branches of trees in the northern West Bank. Souce: International Middle East Media Center