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The war on the Palestinian olive harvest

Some 80,000 Palestinians families depend on the annual olive harvest for their livelihoods. This year alone, settlers, with the backing of the army, have destroyed or damaged thousands of olive trees, threatening both a major source of income and an age-old agricultural custom.

By Alon Aviram

A felled olive tree in the West Bank (photo: Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

Dry shrubs and a mishmash of makeshift tarpaulin shelters cover parts of this parched valley in the South Hebron Hills. The carcass of a car rests in the bottom of a cistern. According to Breaking the Silence, an organization of veteran combatants that works to expose to the Israeli public to the realities of the occupation, it had been placed there by local settlers in order to contaminate collected rainwater with rust. This is the village of Susya al-Qadima. There is an absence here of local infrastructure, as Israeli civil authorities repeatedly deny building permits, and the entire village has been issued pending demolition orders. Unlike the much younger neighboring Jewish settlement of Susya, it doesn’t get much more arid and inaccessible in the West Bank than here.

Last Saturday, Israeli Border Police declared an area belonging to Susya al-Qadima a closed military zone, effective immediately. An officer waved papers at us and stated that he was legally warranted to force everyone out of the valley. We noticed that the orders were outdated, unsigned, and dictated that only Israelis were prohibited from entering the specified site. This did not stop the temporary expulsion of Palestinian locals.

An activist beside me from Taayush, the Israeli and Palestinian organization which uses non-violent direct action to try and end the occupation, was detained as he argued against the authority’s actions. He was handcuffed and marched to the army pillbox overlooking the valley. The Border Police prohibited locals from farming their own land, manhandled us, and threatened anyone who remained in the area with arrest. Instead of harvesting, the families gathered outside the closed military zone, overlooking their unpicked olive grove from a distance. Just another day in the South Hebron Hills.

Year after year, West Bank farmers experience multiple types of restrictions and physical attacks. In the first week of this year’s olive harvest, more than 870 olive trees were vandalized or destroyed by settlers, according to the United Nations. Hundreds more are reported to have since been damaged or destroyed across the West Bank.

Olive tree vandalized by settlers in the Tuwani fields, near the outpost of Havat Maon, South Hebron Hills, October 28, 2012 (photo: Guy/Taayush)

A total of some 7,500 olive trees belonging to Palestinians were destroyed or damaged by settlers between January and mid October 2012, according to a recent report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Since 2001, half a million olive trees have reportedly been uprooted in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It takes an average of ten years before newly planted olive trees can begin producing fruit. Consequently, the ramifications of this widespread vandalism are felt long term.

The olive industry in the Occupied Palestinian Territories supports 80,000 families, and accounts for 14 percent of the OPT economy’s agricultural income. The inability of farmers to cultivate or harvest their crops due to security-related pretexts or the physical destruction of trees undermines the fragile Palestinian economy and makes arable subsistence for communities less feasible. With water shortages, restrictions to land access, and the expropriation of land by settlements and the separation barrier, total agricultural output has been seriously damaged. The proportion of GDP earned from agriculture fell from 28 percent to 5.6 percent in the past 20 years.

The Israeli army has rejected claims that it has neglected its legal obligation under international law as the occupying power to protect Palestinian civilians and property. It has repeatedly stated that it works to protect Palestinians and their crops during harvest. “The army, the Civil Administration and other relevant organizations are taking every possible effort to secure the olive harvest,” Israeli army spokesman Eytan Buchman told The Media Line. Facts on the ground and in the courts suggest otherwise. The Israeli NGO Yesh Din has reported that out of the 162 complaints they have lodged about settler attacks on Palestinian trees since 2005, only one suspect has been indicted. The recurrent high levels of violence directed at both Palestinian farmers and their crops is indicative of a pervasive culture of impunity; perpetrators have reason to believe that the Israeli state will not charge them.

The destruction of olive trees is not only economically burdensome for the West Bank economy and its people, but also represents an affront symbolically and culturally. The age-old Palestinian family tradition of harvesting olives and maintaining the trees for the next generations is desecrated annually. While the olive tree has become a symbol of Palestinian steadfastness, the Israeli occupation has in turn become characterized by its destruction.

Later that same day, a Jeep full of soldiers waited alongside us as we picked olives in another grove not too far from Susya. Under the tree, a middle-aged man shook his head as he looked at the soldiers. He pointed at the olive trees and explained which ones are owned by and depended on by which families. “They planted so we can eat, and we must plant so they can eat,” he explained.

This old way of life is alien to the average city dweller but it is a vital lifeline for many people in the West Bank. Due to Israeli political policy, which seems intent on unofficially annexing Area C of the West Bank, in which Susya is located, this means of subsistence is fast disappearing.

Alon Aviram is graduate of Sussex University with a degree in international relations, and is currently an intern with +972 Magazine.

Related:
WATCH: Olive trees destroyed by settlers in South Hebron Hills
Photos: Three arrested as settlers, soldiers disrupt Hebron olive harvest

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  • COMMENTS

    1. rsgengland

      It is stated that agriculture in the disputed territories fell from 28% to 5.6% of GDP in 20 years .
      In most , if not all countries , the percentage of Agriculture in the economy has shrunk . This is as a result of other sectors of the economy expanding at a far greater rate than agriculture . A full examination of the figures is required to obtain a true and exact picture . Statistics on their own can be misinterpreted and abused

      Reply to Comment
    2. Paul

      The torah also STRICTLY forbids destruction of food bearing trees even in times of war. (dvarim 20:19) I don’t understand how any religious settler rationalizes this destruction.

      Reply to Comment
      • Danny

        The torah also says “thou shalt not kill” and “thou shalt not steal”. It further says “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house and property”. But then again, the torah has always been open to interpretation, hasn’t it?

        Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          Danny,

          As irrelevant as ever.

          Torah permits killing in self defense. You won’t argue that Arab population were hostile towards Jews long before the very idea of Zionism was born.

          As of stealing – Torah speaks only of taking objects by force without permit. Land is surely no included.

          Neighbors… Neighbors only received what they deserved. Torah does not say that if your neighbor comes to kill you should open the gate.

          Reply to Comment
          • aristeides

            The result of Torah study is a propensity to rationalization and excuse-making, splitting hairs to justify the unjustifiable, and denying that the Law doesn’t actually say what it clearly does say.

            Reply to Comment
          • sh

            The Torah does not expect a Jew to have such a guilty conscience that he suspects any neighbor at his gate whom he doesn’t know to wish to kill him.

            Ah, only *objects* may not be taken by force without permission, but land is “surely” fine. Sounds like a very convenient workaround found by a scholar who has even you a little dubious. That’s encouraging.
            Now let’s think about it: I, as your neighbor, am not allowed to covet any object in your house (oh, and not your spouse either, there’s a commandment about that too) but I can take your back yard by force without permission if I fancy a bit more space because no-one mentioned land.
            Thinx: so why did Abraham pay for Makhpela? He should have just filched it. Oh, silly me. That was before matan Torah when you still had to pay for land. But wait, what about David. He paid for the Temple Mount too, we’re told…

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            Sh,

            Neighbors (read – Arabs) proved themselves hostile enough during centuries.

            It has nothing to do with Torah, mere common sense.

            Land ownership is not regulated by the “thou shalt not steal” commandment, so your analogy is a bit irrelevant.

            Abraham payed for Makhpela because it belonged to a friendly neighbor of course. Sons of Heth never waged war on Abaraham and his kin.

            Whatever David payed for the Temple Mountain he paid after he took Jerusalem by force.

            Reply to Comment
    3. The Trespasser

      Nothing proves that these specific trees were uprooted by Israelis.

      By the way, where could I find more material on rusty cars contaminating waters?

      Extensive Google search yielded no results and I tend to think that it is another Pallywood legend.

      Reply to Comment
      • Search in Hebrew, RHR reported on this issue a couple of weeks ago. It’s also on their Facebook page.

        Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          Sorry, but I couldn’t find anything which somehow proves that Israelis damaged that trees.

          Since Palestinian and “pro-peace” activists are know for staging similar attacks the question of credibility remains open.

          Reply to Comment
          • Danny

            Yeah, Palestinians destroyed their own trees. Makes perfect sense. Lame brain.

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            Danny, you really don’t have to sign your posts – status of your brain is well known.

            Reply to Comment
          • Danny

            Lame brain is a person who believes Arabs are mindless animals who would destroy their own property just so they can blame it on the innocent Jews. By the way – those “innocent” Jews are famous for wide scale vandalism that they call ‘price tag’. The destruction of trees is just another price tag for them. If you can’t see that, YOU are the lame brain.

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            Danny,
            It was only you who’ve asserted that “Arabs are mindless animals”

            However there IS proof that there were Palestinian Arab who’ve uprooted olive trees.

            p.s. such a typical behavior for a leftist: Insult your opponent and stick newly made tag on him.

            Insult is to somehow improve your own self esteem, while tags are required for a simple brain to work properly. Right?

            Reply to Comment
          • Obsidian

            Could some Palestinians, albeit a small minority, cut down trees themselves because they can collect compensation?

            Reply to Comment
          • Thefro Trespasser

            Obsidian,
            There is no compensation for the trees.

            The truth is these trees are rather worthless.

            These olives yield about 3-4 kilograms of olives which gives less that 1 liter of olive oil per tree, which is sold for $2-$3 per liter to resellers (within Israel proper 1 liter of olive oil cost about 10 USD per liter, in WB 1 liter is sold for 4-6 USD)

            Add haul and extracting/refining overhead and you finish up with rather commercially unfeasible business.
            One tree brings only about $4 per year – nothing really. To compare minimal days wages in Israel is about $50 while skilled construction worker earns $100-$200.

            Which is why, by the way, Palestinian olive farmers have trouble finding workers to crop trees.

            Reply to Comment
      • Alon

        There are countless testimonies, videos and other accounts which document settler attacks on olive trees. For some, check out: http://www.btselem.org/

        As for the contaminated water, unfortunately it’s no ‘pallywood legend’. check out the ‘modern era’ section on wikipedia:
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Susya

        Or if you can, go to Susya and you can see for yourself the scrap car metal in the bottom of the cistern. Various organizations can take you out there.

        Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          Alon,
          Testimonies and other accounts of Palestinians destroying their own trees are probably not as numerous yet their mere existence proves that Palestinians and their supporters could not be trusted blindly.

          As of contaminated water – now you want me to believe that entire population of Susya is not capable of removing one rusty car which threatens their life.

          Nonsense.

          P.S. I’ve seen few HUGE car graveyards in wadis nearby Hebron.
          At the time I’ve been told by Arab car thieves with whom I was working that all these cars were stolen in Israel, stripped of anything worthy and dumped.

          I dare you to get the body and engine numbers from that car and check with police what is the status of that car.

          Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          Alon,
          Do you really expect me to believe that entire population of Susya plus all hordes of activists were not able to remove one rusty car?

          Nonsense.

          P.S. Before second Intifada I’ve seen HUGE car graveyards in wadis near Hebron.

          Arab car thieves with whom I’ve been working told me that there are care that are stolen in Israel, stripped of anything worthy and dumped in wadi.

          Why don’t you get that car body and engine numbers, so real owners of the car could be found and it could be determined for how long exactly the car was poisoning waters.

          Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          By the way, before that you’ve claimed that there is numerous testimonies which prove that cars were dumped into cisterns.
          All of the sudden it’s not the case and you are referring me to wiki.

          Maybe you should get your facts straight?
          Ignorant are the poorest liars.

          Reply to Comment
      • sh

        True. Israelis didn’t sign their names on them. Eyewitness accounts you don’t believe and photographic evidence can be photoshopped and a Palestinian would be the first to destroy his or her own tree just to spite you.

        The technical term for “lead” is “body solder.” For auto bodywork, it is actually a mix of lead and tin, usually a 30-percent tin/70-percent lead alloy. This is different from solder used for electronic repairs, and the two are not interchangeable. Although handling lead-based body solder is not harmful, breathing lead dust is dangerous, so hand filing (instead of power grinding) and the use of a respirator is recommended. Even better, a number of companies are now selling body solders that substitute copper and zinc for lead (still combined with tin) to form safer filler materials.
        http://www.automedia.com/Getting_the_Lead_On/res20041001ld/1

        Heavy Metals: Heavy metals come from some “natural” sources such as minerals in rocks, vegetation, sand, and salt. But they also come from car and truck exhaust, worn tires and engine parts, brake linings, weathered paint, and rust. Heavy metals are toxic to aquatic life and can potentially contaminate ground water.
        http://www.epa.gov/owow/NPS/roads.html

        Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          Sh,

          Tens of thousands of rotting car bodies are scattered around WB.

          Different years, makes and models…

          Only thins common:
          1 – everything whatever could be unbolted and removed is unbolted and removed.

          2 – all these cars are listed as stolen

          Some delusional people would think that it’s Jewish settler left these bodies, however the truth is quite opposite.

          Reply to Comment
    4. XYZ

      “EVERYONE KNOWS” these things. I, for one, refuse to believe that the policy of the IDF is to allow people to destroy Arab-owned trees or property or that Arabs are not allowed to harvest trees that are clearly in their legal possession. These “EVERYONE KNOWS” stories sound a lot like the famous stories of settlers supposedly shooting Palestinians for fun. We were shown a couple of video clips a few months ago showing settlers supposedly shooting at Arabs AND THE ONES DOING IT WERE CLEARLY IDENTIFIABLE. “Everyone saw it”. I have repeatedly asked here if there have been arrests or prosecutions and I get no response. I will repeat that the heads of the IDF and the police are all vetted before their appointment by the Left in Israel. They are in charge. It is ridiculous to say that Ehud Barak or the police commander in addition to the State Prosectors Office which is dominated by Leftists, would allow their soldiers to turn a blind eye to crimes supposedly committed by settlers. Barak has just come out and proposed another Gush-Katif unilateral withdrawal from part of the West Bank and the destruction of numerous settlements. He is no “right-winger” and no big friend of the settlers. He will NOT tell his soldiers, many of whom are Leftists, to allow criminal acts.
      The only thing I can conclude is that in many of these supposed incidents Arabs are destroying their own trees in order to receive compensation as “victims of the settlers”, or the trees are not on land they legally own.

      Reply to Comment
      • Pete

        XYZ, you refuse to believe these things. It just doesn’t sound reasonable that the reasonable, just police commanders or state prosecutors (you may even know people like them) woud do such things.

        This is exactly what we heard 25-30 years ago in apartheid South Africa. Nobody could conceive that their uncles, grandfathers, brothers – all loving, churchgoing, good people, would participate or turn a blind eye to such atrocities. But it was happening for years.

        History has shown that it can happen. Don’t just follow your emotion. Open you eyes to the fact that it just may be possible. I for one, found that there is a great wakeup call by being tear gassed and sjambokked for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

        Your conclusion is based on your belif that “it just couldn’t happen”. Maybe it just could be happening. Why don’t you take harder look and be prepared to accept that people can be manipulated to perform vile acts if they believe in the outcome.

        BTW, after the revolution, it was hard to find anyone who hated Mandela, no one who actually supported apartheid, but plenty who said “We just didn’t know. We never thought this was been done in our name.”

        I’ve seen the parallels over the last 30 years (on my first trip to Israel). I have seen first hand how states can manipulate the knowledge people have. Seems to me, there are olive trees being destroyed, it is verifiable and people refuse to believe it.

        What about those from Breaking the Silence? Do you think they are just veterans making stuff up because they have nothing better to do?

        Reply to Comment
        • XYZ

          I’m sorry but I don’t seen any comparison to the situation in apartheid South Africa. That country was a 1-party state that controlled all branches and organs of the government, including the security services and the army. That simply is not the case in Israel. In Israel, almost all the organs of security (i.e. coercion) are in the hands of the Left, even if there is a Right-wing government in power. The current Defense Minister came out of the Labor Party and offered to hand east Jerusalem over to Arafat and is now calling for a unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank. The head of the SHABAK was defined by Ha’aretz as “a kippah-wearer (i.e. Orthodox/religious), but he is okay”, i.e. pro-Leftist. The State Prosecutor’s Office is totally dominated by Leftist as can be seen from their record of prosecutions of politicians. The soldiers in the IDF come from all walks of society, including many Leftists, including the officer corps. THe Knesset has members who vehemently oppose the settlers, including MERETZ, HADASH and the Arab parties. Are you telling me that all these people are part of a conspiracy to hush up crimes by the settlers? This makes no sense.
          I repeat what I said about the case where a clearly identifiable person was seen shooting, our 972 site here claimed he was shooting for fun at the Palestinians and yet I have not heard of any prosecution. Why? Didn’t someone go to the Police with the evidence? What happened. There are numerous settlers sitting in prison right now for crimes against the Palestinian so don’t say there are no prosecutions. If a real crime was committed, then it should be reported by those who witness it and they should follow up on it.

          Reply to Comment
      • XYZ, I responded to one of your comments asking why there are never any prosecutions or follow-up when these things occur. I can’t remember which post it was now, as you’ve made this point many times. Your assumption was that as the Minister of Defence is a ‘leftist’ and the army is full of ‘leftists’, any settler attacking Palestinians or their property is certain to be prosecuted. But this is wobbly logic. Firstly, Ehud Barak’s ‘leftist’ credentials are irrelevant; as you yourself have pointed out in another thread, being a self-declared leftist doesn’t automatically make you into a zealous promoter of Palestinian welfare. Leftist governments have overseen enough killing of their own. They have also maintained support for the settlement enterprise as a whole. That enterprise is sponsored by the state and always has been, and a tactical decision to withdraw from Gaza doesn’t alter its nature in the slightest. There are financial incentives for Israeli Jews choosing to live in the West Bank, while Palestinians living just a few hundred yards down the road have to battle against home demolition and land confiscation. Why is it so difficult for you to believe that Umm al-Khair villagers can’t rely on the army’s protection against settler aggression when this same army routinely oversees the bulldozing of their houses?

        The army’s willingness to turn a blind eye to settler violence or at least to use leniency was illustrated by the question posed by Carmela Menashe to Brigadier Yoav Mordechai shortly after a group of stone-throwing settlers stormed a base and damaged some equipment. She asked Mordechai how soldiers would have reacted had these been Palestinian stone-throwers. His reply: “I assume, Carmela, that you wouldn’t expect the brigade commander to open fire on a Jew standing in front of him, I am certain you didn’t mean that.” The same principle is applied when it comes to bringing settlers to court. The population of Yanoun was driven out through settler violence, which began when one old half-blind shepherd (Ahmad Sobie) was beaten up on a hillside. The people only started to trickle back when EAPPI volunteers established a permanent presence there in 2003. Without the presence of observers, those homes would be empty now. The displacement of a whole community is an extreme example, but lesser acts of violence do occur regularly. It simply doesn’t serve the state’s interests to prosecute.

        Palestinians have very little hope of getting any compensation out of a system that does not hold them to be equal. At this time of year there is always a spate of requests for volunteers to help the farmers with the harvests, as it reduces the likelihood of attacks and harassment. People who help out do take for granted what you ‘refuse to believe’, because they have seen the effects. Your refusal to even consider that they might be giving the truth is essentially an affirmation of blind faith in the army and government, which leaves you with several ill-fitting jigsaw pieces to try and cram together – this can’t be happening, so perhaps the Arabs are just out to get some money.

        If you really want follow-up when this violence is reported, you don’t have to depend on 972 bloggers. What stops you from going into the West Bank? Visiting affected communities will not cause you to morph into an agnostic vegan who has hammer-and-sickle patterned bed linen, stomps around in Birkenstocks, and eats only organic root vegetables. It needn’t be such a painful experience, and you might get some better answers to your questions.

        Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          Vicky,
          “Palestinians have very little hope of getting any compensation out of a system that does not hold them to be equal.”

          Truth.

          Four questions:
          1 – To whom mentioned Palestinians must be equal?
          2 – On what basis?
          3 – Who is responsible for the lack of equality?
          4 – What steps must be taken to restore equality?

          Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          What I REALLY love is lack of constructive question/answer from “Progressives”
          Their silence is the perfect witness to the emptiness of their claims.

          Keep on guys, you are the best.

          Reply to Comment
      • Steve

        LOL
        Typical Israeli response. Close your eyes, stick your fingers in you ears & claim you have no knowledge of the criminality being enacted in your name. It really is a joke to the rest of the world at this point. ‘If a settler commits a crime & the IDF doesn’t arrest them, was the crime really committed?’ Grow up! Accept responsibility for the actions of your countrymen (if they’re so ‘justified’) or protest against them, but DON’T try & pretend they’re not happening anymore – it just makes you look childish.

        Reply to Comment
    5. From the piece:

      “The recurrent high levels of violence directed at both Palestinian farmers and their crops is indicative of a pervasive culture of impunity; perpetrators have reason to believe that the Israeli state will not charge them.” : the State’s failure to prosecute these acts attaches vanguard Torah ideology to the State. The State is culpable and abetting.

      “The age-old Palestinian family tradition of harvesting olives and maintaining the trees for the next generations is desecrated annually.” –and– “This old way of life is … a vital lifeline for many people in the West Bank.” : Removing cultural livelihood will dislocate the young, just maturing, enhancing the risk of violence. With their past condemned, some will turn from it, falling into the oribit of violent ideology. Occupiers never understand they are unraveling the future.

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        Greg,

        >”the State’s failure to prosecute these acts attaches vanguard Torah ideology to the State.”
        State has no Torah ideology.

        >“The age-old Palestinian family tradition of harvesting olives and maintaining the trees for the next generations is desecrated annually.”
        Out of 3650 olive trees uprooted during last 3 years 3650 were planted one-three years ago. There is nothing about “upholding”, only “creating conflict”
        “This old way of life is … a vital lifeline for many people in the West Bank.”

        Many = 100 000 (one hundred thousand)
        It’s about 4% of total Palestinian population. I wouldn’t call it “many”

        Dude, you really should double-check your claims.
        You’ve been fed too much pro-Palestinian propaganda.

        Reply to Comment
        • The attachment of ideology is as applied. If the State consistently acts to re-enforce the behavior of vanguard settlers while suppressing prior resident Palestinians in their attempts at livelihood, the State is implicitly favouring the ideology of the settlers as de facto policy. The vanguard settlers’ right nationalist Torah ideology thus attaches to the State. As applied, the State is neither neutral or more centerist than the settlers; both State and settler hide behind a facade of separation.

          This is possible because the judiciary cannot or will not enforce State neutrality in prosecution and protection. Quite simply, under the true rule of law you would not be able to hide this de facto, attached State support. The operative word here is “hide”: you know you receive such State support, but would pretend not, or wink one’s way with God.

          Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            Greg,

            What facts are supporting theory that State is supporting settler’s destruction of trees?

            Fact than police investigators failed to find who did it in 126 cases?

            In all 126 cases there is not even one single bit of proof that Israelis did it, while Palestinians have documented record of damaging own trees just to make the case – or living car to rust in the well.

            p.s. How exactly police investigators should find these vandals, be they Jewish or Palestinian?

            Reply to Comment
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