With contributions by Orli Karinis of “Friends to the Villages,” an Israeli voluntary organization active in the Nablus area.
The autumn of 2005 saw a poor olive harvest both locally and abroad. In the West Bank, however, that was the least of the problems. There were countless attacks by settlers against the trees and their owners. A farmer from Yanun was beaten while harvesting, his face torn apart by rifle butts. Young settler women wielded knives against female harvesters from Sinjal Village and decimated their crop. At the start of November, settlers from Itamar stole olives from the trees of neighboring Akraba. On November 16, settlers from an illegal outpost near Eilon Moreh assaulted an olive grove belonging to the village of Salem, burning, chopping or uprooting about 700 trees. It wasn’t the first time that Salem’s trees suffered. In May, to mark Israel’s Independence Day, the settlers of Eilon Moreh burned 200 of them. In total, during the last half of 2005, at least 1150 of Salem’s trees have been destroyed.
Apart from the settler attacks, a new woe has descended on the olive farmers: the separation barrier. Its northern portion has cut off about 80,000 dunams (20,000 acres) of farmland belonging to twenty villages. Although gates have been opened, the farmers have almost no access to these lands. This is due to a number of factors: the gates are often distant; there is no regular schedule of openings and closings; and many of the farmers are prohibited from entry.
And then there are older problems. Palestinians cannot get access to those of their lands that border on Israeli settlements and illegal outposts. The trees have suffered from cumulative neglect. Since the start of the Intifada in September 2000, many have not been pruned or fertilized. The soil around them hasn’t been plowed. This compulsory neglect has caused them to wither.
Facts and Figures
The Palestinian Authority (PA) has published a preliminary assessment concerning the olive crop for 2005. Issued before the harvest, on August 8, the report estimated that the West Bank would produce 6000 tons of oil. The amount in storage from last year’s harvest is 7000 tons. The consumption of olive oil in the Palestinian Territories amounts to 11,000 tons annually. Thus only 2000 tons will remain for export or for sale in the Israeli market.
Last year’s crop, by contrast, was extremely good. Olive-oil production in the West Bank reached 30,000 tons. This made possible massive sales to external markets, where olive oil fetches a higher price than among the local Palestinians. The reasons for the scant crop this year, in the view of the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture, are two. First, there is a general tendency in the olive sector for good years to alternate with bad. Second, climatic conditions were unfavorable: an abnormally long heat wave hit the region at the time when the trees were blossoming, causing the flowers to dry up.
Almost all the organizations that work in the Territories (Rabbis for Human Rights, Friends of the Villages, Taayush, kibbutz members, and others) have mobilized to help the olive farmers. Three years ago they established a central body, “Coalition for the Olive Harvest.” Yaakov Manor, coordinator for the coalition, tells how the initiative originated: “In the harvesting season of 2002, we discovered the magnitude of the outrage. Groves amounting to 90,000 dunams hadn’t been harvested for years because of the danger posed by the settlers. In that year thousands of Israeli volunteers organized to take part in the harvest. Our mobilization raised hackles with the Occupation authorities, who did all they could to expel the volunteers. Our stubbornness and persistence, including an energetic public campaign and a petition to the High Court, brought good results. One of them is that in the last two years the Occupation army has been assigned to defend the harvesters.”
In practice, however, the army allots only a few days to each village, and these do not suffice to enable them to complete the harvest. More than once the farmers discover that they have arrived too late: the fruit has gone bad or been stolen.
The army cannot protect the West Bank groves on a constant basis. Even on days when soldiers and police are present, outrages occur right under their noses. They refuse to interfere and arrest the aggressors. As for the farmers, they long ago despaired of getting effective help from the authorities. Many of the police are settlers themselves. The attitude toward complaints is one of hostile dismissal. Another problem, which ensures minimal complaints, is the so-called “security rating.” The moment a Palestinian complains, his security rating is worsened, and the Shin Beth classifies him as “liable to take revenge.” In view of their deepening poverty and increasing unemployment, most farmers forgo the right to complain in order not to harm their chances to receive work permits and get through the checkpoints.
In principle, the production of olive oil in the West Bank could serve as an economic cushion for a population that has lost all other sources of livelihood. Not only does the Israeli Occupation keep Palestinian farmers from working with dignity; it also destroys Palestine’s most valuable natural resource.
The olive sector in Israel
Compared to the West Bank, where olive-oil production suffices to meet the local need and even surpasses it in good years, in Israel there isn’t enough. The situation has worsened this year, when Israeli production came to only 3000 tons, a third of last year’s crop. Israel consumes an annual 15,000 tons.
Most of the olive groves in Israel belong to Arabs (175,000 dunams), and like those in the West Bank, they depend on direct rainfall. The irrigated groves are new, and most belong to Jews. They occupy 15,000 dunams. In a good year, the most one can get from a non-irrigated grove is 35 kilograms of oil per dunam. Gadi Horowitz, Director of the Olive Council, claims that an irrigated grove can produce 220 kilograms per dunam.
In the Jewish sector, new groves are being planted at the rate of 3000 dunams per year. Soon, says Horowitz, the amount of oil from irrigated groves will surpass that from the non-irrigated. The irrigated groves, moreover, are not subject to the phenomenon of alternating good and bad years.
In the past, Israeli companies used to purchase large amounts of olive oil from the West Bank. This year that is impossible, because the area has not produced a surplus. Most of the oil sold in Israel, therefore, will come from Europe, Turkey and Jordan. Given the global scarcity, we can expect the prices to be sky-high.