Palestinians’ olive oil harvest threatened by settler violence

First published by the Arab Weekly on 2710/2019

It is perhaps surprising that US administration officials are silent about these attacks but quick to condemn violence by Palestinians.

Scorched-earth policy. A Palestinian tries to extinguish a fire in an olive grove near the Palestinian village of Burin in the northern West Bank after an attack by Israeli settlers, October 16. (AFP)

At the heart of the US administration’s Deal of the Century is the premise that Palestinians need economic improvement to move forward. The much-maligned Manama workshop — “Peace to Prosperity” — outlined a $50 billion aid plan for Palestinians that would go alongside the United States’ political vision.

The workshop was boycotted by the Palestinians who argued a just political solution was a prerequisite and rejected attempts to exchange rights for prosperity. As they put it: “Palestine is not for sale.”

Without a political settlement, Palestinians rely on agriculture for much of their economic activity. One of the most important sources of revenue is olives, a centuries-old mainstay of the Palestinian economy. It is estimated that 45% of Palestinian agricultural land contains olive trees and many local Palestinian economies in the West Bank depend on the olive harvest, which takes place from the beginning of October to the beginning of November.

There are an estimated 10 million olive trees in Gaza and the West Bank that need to be picked every year, producing around 700 kilograms per acre. This is a labour-intensive activity requiring thousands of workers over the course of a month. This means nearly half the population must participate to complete the picking before the harvest spoils.

Over the past few years, volunteers from Israel and other countries have helped Palestinians complete the process.

Once the olives are picked, they are sent to presses and squeezed for oil before being transferred to outside towns and cities to be sold. Opportunities to export the olives and olive oil internationally are limited but growing as Palestinians try to maximise the value of this natural resource.

For many years, Palestinians have had trouble moving their harvest because of Israel’s restrictive security measures, including closures, checkpoints, roadblocks and the barrier wall. These restrictions affect Palestinians’ ability to tend their olive groves outside the harvest period.

Many farmers have been separated from their agricultural land because of the wall, a separation that requires them to seek permits from Israel to visit their land. If closures occur during the harvest period, Palestinians risk not being able to pick the olives and losing an entire year’s income.

Palestinians recently faced an additional impediment to realising the fruits of their harvest: settler violence against Palestinian farmers and helpers. An increasing number of settlers are seemingly targeting Palestinians’ olive harvest to disrupt their livelihoods.

Settlers attacked Palestinian workers as well as Israeli and international human rights activists who have gone to their aid. On October 16, an 80-year-old rabbi who was part of a group of ten Israelis and internationals aiding Palestinians in Burin and Huwarah, was attacked together with his colleagues by 30 settlers, NGO Yash Din said.

Rabbi Moshi Yehudai, an activist with Rabbis for Human Rights, suffered injuries to his arm and head and was taken to the Meir Medical Centre in Kfar Saba to be treated for a broken arm. The attackers were from the illegal settlement of Yitzhar, which Israeli security identifies as a hotbed for extremism.

Despite brazen displays of violence, settlers are always protected by the Israeli military, which, instead of keeping the peace, covers for the settlers’ behaviour. When challenged, security forces often say it is their job to protect Israeli settlers, not Palestinians. Who then can protect the Palestinians, when the Palestinian Authority’s security forces are not allowed to?

Attacks against Palestinians and those helping them are never condemned by Israeli officials. However, when settlers from the same community attacked Israeli soldiers, causing light injuries to two people, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu quickly issued a condemnation.

It is perhaps more surprising that US administration officials are silent about these attacks but quick to condemn violence by Palestinians. This calls into question the United States’ commitment to improving the lives of Palestinians, on which its Deal of the Century is supposed to be predicated.

How can this objective be reached if the mainstay of the farmers’ economy, the olive harvest, is increasingly under threat? It is time for Israel to end settler violence if it has any desire for peace.