Ghassan Najjar, director of the Burin Community Center, stands as soldiers order his family to leave their olive grove. (David Shaw)
Palestinian villages across the West Bank are undertaking their annual olive harvest this October, amid fears of harassment and violence from Israeli settlers and soldiers.
While the Palestinian olive harvest is a tradition that stretches back countless generations, the phenomenon of settler violence during the olive harvest is only as old as the illegal Israeli settlements themselves. Every year around October, grandparents, parents and children saddle up the donkey and, tree by tree, day by day, methodically comb, scrape and pick sack-fulls of olives from their family’s allotted portion of the 10 million olive trees that dot the hills and mountains of the West Bank and Gaza.
According to an Oxfam report, “more than 80 percent of olive farmers are small-medium scale farmers, owning olive orchards equal to or less than 25 dunams (a dunam is the equivalent of 1,000 square meters) in size … olive cultivation provides employment and income for around 100,000 farming families who are olive oil producers … in a good year, the olive oil sector contributes over $100 million income annually to some of the poorest communities” (“The Road to Olive Farming: Challenges to Developing the Economy of Olive Oil in the West Bank,” October 2010 [PDF]).
This way of life, vital for the economic survival of countless Palestinian families, is becoming increasingly threatened — both by the hostility and violence of settlers who live near Palestinian villages, and by the crippling restrictions and regulations of the Israeli military.
Surrounded by settlements
The village of Burin, near Nablus, offers a prime example of the dangers faced by the 2011 olive harvesters. Burin’s 4,000 inhabitants live in a valley, surrounded on all hilltops by Israeli settlements — Yitzhar, Har Bracha, and a Yitzhar “outpost.” Last month, settlers from Yitzhar, proud birthplace of the “price-tag” campaign of racist violence, burned 200 olive trees as villagers were celebrating a wedding (“Yitzhar settlers violently crash Burin wedding, military watches,” International Solidarity Movement, 6 September 2011).
This followed a similar attack in late June, described by Burin residents as the worst attack in 10 years, as 2500 olive trees on more than 900 dunams of land were destroyed, according to a report by the Monitoring Israeli Colonizing activities in the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza project (“Israeli colonists Set tens of Olive Fields Alight in Burin,” 2 July 2011).
Ghassan Najjar, director of the Burin Community Center, told The Electronic Intifada that “every year it is getting worse, and this year it is a lot worse. It used to be they burned trees once a year, but this year they have burned trees four times since April. Since April, they have cut down and burned entire areas to clear the land so we can use nothing.”
The olive harvest is frequently a target for settler attacks in Burin. Between 9-16 October 2010, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem reported four separate settler attacks against Burin olive harvesters (“List of incidents in which damage was caused to Palestinian olive trees or property,” 28 October 2010).
Over the course of the 2009 olive harvest, almost 250 olive trees were cut down by settlers, often with chainsaws, as activists with the Michigan Peace Team documented in October 2009 (“Burin tree massacre,” 3 October 2009).
“Like a sister to me”
Ibrahim El Buriny is a 27-year old olive harvester whose family has combed the trees on Burin’s hillsides for generations. “This land is like a sister to me,” he said. “My grandfather bought this land in 1975 from the village of Huwara. They have records. The papers are in the PA and Israeli databases.”
On the first day of this year’s harvest in Burin, he spoke of how settler attacks in the last five years have escalated. “Settlers are getting more radical as they are growing stronger,” he said. “They are growing in numbers and are better armed … Usually groups of 25 settlers come [from the hilltops down to] us, many with guns. [Or] settlers will get out of their car on the main road, curse at us and shoot at us. The soldiers come and defend the settlers … there are two alternatives — either run and leave all the olives, or stay. If we can, we scare them or chase them away.”
Settlers burn olive groves in an attempt to physically erase Palestinians’ claim to the land, and they attack olive harvesters intending to terrify Palestinians into submission and exile. One-third of Yitzhar sits on privately owned Palestinian land, according to data provided by the Israeli Civil Administration (“Guilty! Construction of Settlements on Private Palestinian Land,” Peace Now, March 2007).
For the settlers of Yitzhar, a burning Palestinian olive tree signifies exactly what a burning cross signified to the Ku Klux Klan in the US of the 1950s — in either case, the message is racial intolerance, and the purpose is ethnic cleansing. “The settlers use fear, they intimidate people to leave their homes … they say ‘we cut down the trees because a Palestinian touched this and made it dirty. This is our land and we can do whatever we want,’” Najjar said.
“We can’t leave”
For the Palestinians of Burin, the olive harvest — in the face of settler violence — becomes a political statement of resistance. “The land is like our mother and father,” said El Buriny. “We can’t leave our land, and who would leave their land? That’s the number one reason [we continue to harvest]. But in our situation, we also need [to harvest] this land for the money as well. [But] even if we had money we wouldn’t give up our land. Even if they forbid us from our land, we are not going to drink a cup of fear, and we’re not gonna stay quiet.”
Najjar echoed this determination emphatically. “Olives are the most important farming product here for us. Of course the olive harvest is important for the olives and for the resistance. We know for certain that if we leave the land they will steal it, and claim it is their land.”
As an aside, Najjar added, “we know for certain that it’s not their land, because they burn it.”
Oftentimes, settler attacks spark confrontations between farmers and settlers. El-Buriny, while stressing that villagers almost never retaliate, insisted on their right to repel the attacker, and to defend themselves, and their olive trees, if in danger. “How can we let someone come on our land, and not let us be on our land, and hit us, and curse at us, and stay quiet? … All we have is a rock to defend ourselves. We don’t have anything but a rock, our hearts, and God,” he explained.
As conflicts have escalated in recent years, the Israeli military has committed itself to administrative and on-the-ground interference in the olive harvest. Its stated intention has even been to protect Palestinian farmers from settler attacks.
In the words of the 2008 United Nations report “The Olive Harvest in the West Bank and Gaza,” “As a military occupying power, the [Israeli army] is obligated to ensure public order and life in the Occupied Territories and the Government of Israel has repeatedly committed to ensuring that Palestinian farmers have access to their fields … according to the Israeli authorities, the IDF and the police will be present at friction points for designated few-day periods to ensure protection for Palestinian farmers from settler harassment” (“The olive harvest in the West Bank and Gaza,” October 2008 [PDF]).
In reality, however, the presence of the Israeli army only offers a minimal amount of meaningful protection for Palestinian farmers, and serves rather to intensify the administrative barriers and physical dangers facing the farmers during their olive harvest.
In 2008, Omar Suleiman, an olive harvester from Kafr Qalil near Nablus, was harvesting with his son when, he told The Electronic Intifada, “six or seven settlers came over the hills with guns and said ‘this is not for you, this is for us, go!’ Since then, the military comes to protect us.”
To a certain extent, he said, “the soldiers are here to make sure there are no problems between settlers and Palestinians.” However, the presence of the Israeli army means that “now, for the last three years, we have to ask the army for permission [to harvest] … [and] if the settlers come to attack us again, the soldiers will help them.” Najjar echoed this claim that “the soldiers are there to protect the settlers. Most of the army are settlers anyway.”
To regulate the olive harvest, the Israeli District Coordination Committee (DCO) provides farmers with permits to access their own land with the “protection” of Israeli forces. Thus, Palestinian families often harvest their land in plain view of the military jeeps and white DCO vans parked on the adjacent hillside. Far from sheltering the Palestinians under a benevolent wing of protection, however, the army will frequently forbid families from accessing their land, usually with no explanation. Additionally, the DCO decides on which days farmers can legally access their land, and usually allots only one or two days for harvesting time, not nearly enough for the majority of families. Finally, if a family does not request a permit from the DCO, the army is given a pretext to prevent them from harvesting, especially if their land is close to a settlement.
On 12 October this year, the Israeli military drove up to the fields of Burin at 9am and ordered the families, on the first day of harvesting, to leave their harvest. Soldiers refused to give an explanation. The military then stated that families would be allowed to return to their fields for the next three days. Two days later, however, the military returned to kick one family off of their land, declaring the area a closed military zone and again offering no further explanation.
Najjar was present with his family when they were ordered to stop harvesting on 12 October. “This is normal for us,” he said later that day. “We are used to it.”
He continued: “This is not the first time we have been kicked off our land. That is no reason for us not to go back and continue work. If my father was not there, I would have been angry and refused to leave. But in front of my father I controlled my emotions, and did not show that I was upset.”
Israeli army’s inaction toward settler violence
Realistically, the presence of the Israeli military during the olive harvest, far from meaningfully alleviating the threat of settler violence, works instead to thicken the layers of oppression through which the Palestinians must struggle in order to make it to their olive trees and back.
In October 2010, Oxfam noted that, “in the first six months of 2010, the United Nations reported that hundreds of dunams of agricultural land and thousands of olive trees and other crops had been damaged in settler-related incidents. Israeli NGO [non-governmental organization] Yesh Din, an Oxfam partner, recently published a study in which it did not find a single case where the Israeli authorities had taken action to bring those involved to court.” (“Palestinian olive oil profits in the West Bank could double if Israeli restrictions ended,” Oxfam, 15 October 2010).
As the settlers grow more radicalized and Israeli regulations grow more dense, October 2011 may be a rough olive harvest for Palestinians in the West Bank. However, Omar Suleiman from Kufr Qalil offered a glimmer of hope. While an Israeli military jeep, a DCO van, and a small group of settlers sit perched together on the opposite hillside, he continued to affirm the pride, steadfastness and determination of his people.
“This settlement [pointing to Har Bracha] came here 20, 30 years ago. Israel has been here for 60 years. My family has had this land for 4,000 years.”