The War of the Olives
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The War of the Olives

MOHAMMED RAFATI, 57, stands on a hilltop in the village of Rafat south of Ramallah looking out at the barbed wire of the separation barrier some 100 meters away. He points to the towering olive trees just a few meters behind the barrier. “Those trees were tended by my father and his father before him,” he says. He singles out a large tree. “See how big that is? It is over 200 years old. Now I can only look at it. My heritage.”

Rafati’s eyes well up. “Why do they prohibit me from reaching my land? I have never hurt them and I’ve have never committed a crime. Why this punishment?”

It’s olive season in Palestine, but for many like Rafati the time-honored tradition has been spoilt this year. “They have taken away the joy of the olive-picking season for the whole village,” he says. “All you need to do is walk through Rafat and look at the desperation in people’s faces.”

***image2***Israel’s “security fence” has cut through 70 percent of Rafat’s land. To illustrate its impact, Rafati shows us around his village, where most of the men are sitting at the local coffee shop, sipping small cups of coffee and tea and puffing on water pipes. Children of all ages are running around, playing in the village’s open field.

“You would never have seen the villagers sitting around like this before,” explains Rafati. “All of them – men, women and children – would have been out in the olive groves picking olives. But this year, this racist separation wall has separated most of the villagers from their trees.”

It’s a “war on the olive trees”. That’s how many have described the Israeli measures during this olive-picking season. Not only have people lost access to their groves, but the trees and the farmers themselves are in danger. Thousands of trees have been leveled or uprooted by Israeli bulldozers, and farmers have been harassed and assaulted by soldiers and settlers when trying to reach their land.

“The Israeli army and the settlers have intensified their attacks on farmers who try to get to their land and pick olives,” says Issa Samandar, coordinator for the Land Defense Committees in the West Bank, a grassroots movement that deals specifically with land confiscations. “They are taking advantage of the deteriorating security situation.”

Samandar argues that these attacks are part of an expansionist policy, especially given that since the start of the Intifada more and more farmers have been unable to reach their lands every year. This is particularly true, he contends, for land close to Israeli settlements and bypass roads or those near the Green Line and the separation barrier.

Fifteen years ago, Mahmoud Hanin from the village of Beit Foureek, nine kilometers east of Nablus, started a family-run olive harvesting business to bring in a modest but steady income. He rented 150 dunams of land from the neighboring Awarta village and planted them with olive saplings. This, he said, was the fulfillment of a family dream.

***image3***Today, Hanin can only look longingly at the grove he planted and tended for so many years. His field is part of a vast area of land belonging to Beit Foureek of some 1,500 dunams of olive groves. Since the start of the Intifada, owners have not been allowed to reach their land because settlers – under the protection of Israeli soldiers, say the villagers– have made it too dangerous.

There are seven settlement enclaves along the eastern border of the village. Hanin says the settlers have taken advantage of the outbreak of the Intifada to assert their presence all along this seven-kilometer stretch. According to Hanin and other villagers, the settlers have implemented a systematic policy to keep farmers from their land, killing and terrorizing the population. Gangs of settlers, say the villagers, will hide in the groves, and when a farmer tries to reach his land he risks a severe beating or worse. Two years ago, 28-year-old Fareed Nassassreh was shot and killed. Dozens of others have been wounded by gunshots. Now, no one goes near the olive groves.

According to a study conducted by the Center for Research of Palestinian Land, an NGO that monitors land expropriations by Israeli settlements, settlers, by methods such as the above, and the settlements themselves, which are usually encircled by a one-kilometer security belt, have rendered between 10,000 to 15,000 dunams of olive groves off-limits to farmers during the harvest season.

Walid Abu Muhsin, researcher and head of the maps department at the Center says that such “Israeli aggression against olive trees” has taken on new and more dangerous dimensions this year with the construction of the separation barrier. Twenty-two percent of the area of land that was seized in the first phase of the wall’s construction was planted with olive trees. Twelve percent of the 170,000 dunams that will be expropriated in the second phase of the project is also planted with olive trees.

The Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees (PARC), which is concerned with all aspects of the development of Palestinian agriculture, warns of the dangers that will face the agricultural sector if Israel continues building the barrier. PARC has found that the separation barrier’s construction has led to the loss of 6,500 job opportunities in the
agricultural sector until now. This number, says the non-governmental organization, will only grow as the barrier grows, especially with the destruction of vast areas of olive groves, which previously provided 22,000 tons of olives yearly.

The olive harvest is still a vibrant tradition and a considerable source of income for many families, but with the ongoing construction of the separation barrier and increasingly aggressive settlers this may soon, as it has already become for many, be a thing of the

This article was first published by the Palestine Report October 29th, 2003. Images have been added from PENGON/Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign.