Violence, lack of land access, make for bitter olive harvest

Autumn in the West Bank is usually a festive season when families harvest the olives together but this year's Palestinian crop has again been marked by violence and restrictions on land access.

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"The olive harvest is a family thing," said Ahmed, an 18-year-old from Kufr Kalil near Nablus in the West Bank. "We all come together to work," he said, pointing to his mother Nadia and seven-year-old niece Nour, picking olives together. The oil is used for home consumption or sold, easing the financial burden of poor families.

"Many people here are dependent on UN aid. People who used to work in Israel are now denied entry and are very poor," said Ahmed.

Since the first Gulf war in 1991, the government of Israel has restricted Palestinians’ access to work inside Israel; these laws became stricter after the outbreak of violence in September 2000.

Conflicts with settlers

During the olive harvest, Palestinians venture into agricultural areas they would normally avoid due to their proximity to Israeli settlements.

Israeli volunteers, from organisations such as Rabbis for Human Rights, join the Palestinians during the harvest in an attempt to reduce friction with the settlers, but their presence is not always enough.

"Just yesterday the settlers were here, very violent. They were armed. They yelled and threatened us," Nadia said. She said the previous day, her neighbours from the village Til were attacked by several settlers from the nearby outpost Havat Gilad.

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According to the Israeli human rights group B'tselem, since the olive harvest in September 2000, five people from Kufr Kalil alone were killed by security forces, one was killed in the Jenin area and at least two other Palestinians were killed by settlers.

"The military provides extra security for the Palestinians in problematic areas," said Zidki Maman from Israel's Civil Administration.

"In cases of violence, we have orders to reach the Palestinian and invite him to file an official complaint with the police," he added.

Downhill from Kufr Kalil, settlers, many armed, gathered at a well once used by the Palestinian villagers. However, when three children, aged 13 and 14, tried to refill water bottles for people working in the fields, they were arrested by Israeli soldiers.

Israeli security officials said any limitations on harvesting were implemented due to "security events" perpetrated by Palestinians, but emphasised that Israel was committed to ensuring access to the trees.

Permits for harvesting

On the first Saturday of the olive harvest, about 80 Israeli peace activists joined Palestinians in the village Jayyous. Many Palestinians cannot acquire the Israeli-issued permits to access their fields, leaving them without the necessary manpower.

"Only with the help of the [Israeli volunteers] can I get the work done," said Aitaf Abdel Raul. Her Israeli friend, Jamila Biso, who helped coordinate the volunteers, said Aitaf had passed out twice during the harvest and could not do the work alone, but no one else from her family was able to get permits.

"I am getting old and I have diabetes," Aitaf said.

Much of Jayyous' agricultural land is between Israel's separation barrier and the Green Line border with Israel.

Israel built the barrier, officials said, to prevent attacks inside the Jewish state, although there are enclaves in the so-called "seam zone". B'tselem said about 10 percent of the West Bank lies in this zone, access to which depends on an Israeli permit.

Photo: Shabtai Gold/IRIN
Um Nail Salim plucks her family's harvest. The family lost many trees due to the path of the separation barrier and says it cannot access the land most of the year to prune and water the trees

"All people who don't have security problems are granted permits," said Maman, noting that the army operated gates in the barrier for access.

But, on a nearby plot, Thaar Salim said the troubles extended beyond the olive harvest season. "I can only get a permit for 50 days, for the harvest," he said. "We don't have a permit during the rest of the year. I can't tend to the trees. Only God waters them."

Similarly, other crops in the area have been neglected, and many greenhouses used to grow tomatoes stand barren and dry.

The farmers in Jayyous said this year's olive harvest was especially weak, largely due to neglect. For the people who rely on the harvest for income, this is a deadly blow to their economy. "We have to look hard to find olives on the trees. They are not doing well at all," lamented Aitaf as she sorted through the harvest.