The Life of an Olive Farmer

At seven in the morning yesterday I found myself on a bus and at nine, I was sitting in the bed of a pick-up truck that was slowly negotiating its way down a dirt path, green olive trees breaking the monotony of brown on either side.  It was already warm and could already feel the sweat soaking through the blue tee-shirt I had wrapped around my head.  I had never picked olives and I really didn’t know what to expect.  Eight hours later, seven trees were finished and I was sitting on the ground, exhausted, counting in Arabic with Hamoudeh.

I spent the day yesterday helping a family begin the harvest in the village of Kafr Qaddoum near Nablus.  The village is surrounding by around 40,000 settlers in the Qadummin settlement bloc and Palestinian civilians – most often those harvesting their olive groves – are often subject to violence from the settlers.  Many of the villagers have had valuable land confiscated by the settlement while others have faced harassment and physical violence.  Moreover, while the olive harvesting period stretches for around 40 days, many of the villagers have received permits allowing them to harvest their trees for only three days.

The trip was meant to not only show solidarity with the families and to help with the labor, but also to act as a deterrent to further settler attacks.  Perched atop one of the olive trees, the Qadummin settlement was easily seen running along the top of the hill, overlooking the olive groves.  It was not a stretch to imagine the ease with which settlers could abuse the Palestinians below.

Settlers have consistently given the family with whom I worked a hard time.  The grandmother, Horieh – who despite her age (I guessed around 70) was out all day picking olives from the trees and serving the volunteers copious amounts of tea – told me that her family and her neighbors have nearly daily run-ins with the settlers, mostly consisting of damage to the family’s valuable olive trees.  Horieh had lived her entire life on that land and had harvested olives every fall since she was seven years old.  Khalid, a bright boy of 12, revealed that the family had trees uprooted two weeks ago.

[tweetmeme] It was highly unlikely that settlers would come harass the families when volunteers – organized by OxFam and the EU – were present and, as expected, nothing happened.  But not too far away, near the town of Qalqilya, settlers from the illegal outpost of Gevat Gilad set olive groves on fire and prevented the fire department from reaching the scene.  We received a phone call giving us details about this attack while we were in the groves.  Ahmed, the father of the family, silently shook his head when he heard about the attack.  He refused to talk about the troubles settlers have caused his family and community.   Although we heard about the Qalqilya attack while sitting in the grove, it wasn’t until I returned home that I heard that – all yesterday – settlers also set fire to groves in the villages of Sarra and Jit and in the village of Azimot, settlers from the illegal settlement of Elon Moreh opened fire – with live ammunition – at farmers peacefully harvesting.

As atrocious and abhorrent as these settler attacks are, they are nothing new and, in fact, Palestinian farmers have grown more or less accustomed to them. Yousef Munayyer of the Palestine Center wrote that attacks on Palestinian olive farmers during this important time of year happen ‘like clockwork.’  Be sure, Munayyer advises, attacks against the Palestinian olive industry are not limited to harvesting season, but occur year-round.  Violence spikes during this period, though, because settlers are far less likely to be caught when working in very rural and isolated olive groves.

But I’d be wrong to suggest that settler violence targeting Palestinian civilians and their olive trees or other crops only occurs during the olive harvest season. Rather, attacks by settlers on Palestinian olive trees occur year round. What we see during the olive harvest is increased attacks against Palestinians who are out in the groves collecting olives. Often in vulnerable, rural areas where Israeli settlers can attack with little fear of being caught or stopped, Palestinian civilians fall prey to settler attacks more in this period. But when we look into attacks on the crops and trees themselves, we see that this is not limited only to the period of the harvest. In fact, when look at our data which covered 18 months from Jan. 2009 to Aug. 2010, only about 30% of attacks on olive trees and groves occur during the harvest (late Sept to early Nov). The rest of the attacks are distributed across the remainder of the year with a remarkable concentration in June and July, when 40% of attacks occur. Approximately 10% of all acts of settler violence captured in our database are against the olive trees and occasionally other forms of agriculture. With over 100 attacks on trees in an 18 month period, this comes out to an average of approximately 5.5 attacks on trees per month.

Predictably, very few people are actually held accountable for these atrocious and heartless attacks.  Not only are the settlers destroying the main source of income for many Palestinians, they are attacking a Palestinian symbol, a source of pride.

At around noon, we sat down to eat a delicious spread of hummus, fool, kibbeh and many other delicious Palestinian treats.  In the shade, with our tee-shirts wrapped around our heads, protecting us from the glaring sun, we watched the children playing, learning English and dancing underneath the olive branches.  I speak with Khalid, the 12-year-old son.  He goes to school during the week and works in the groves when he is home.  His favorite subject is math and he wants to be a football player for Barcelona.  Hamoudeh is three and follows his sisters around begging for a sip of Coca Cola.  When he finally gets a small cup, a large smile flashes across his face and he sits under a tree and slowly drinks his treat.  Later he sits in the car and laughs as he leans heavily against the horn, prompting some laughter and some annoyance from his siblings.  Horieh pours us some more coffee and once again thanks us for helping with the harvest.  I ask her again about the settlers and she waves her arm towards the settlement bloc and walks slowly away to continue pulling the small valuable fruit off of the trees.

Photo from UPI, chart from the Palestine Center; Note:  I will add some original photos soon

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