Farming Palestine

'Palestinian olive farmers face assault and interference by Israeli settlers some of whom are gun-hu

In what is becoming somewhat of an annual tradition, recent weeks have seen dozens of stories in the international media about the difficulties facing Palestinians during the olive harvest season. Ever since the start of the Second Intifada in 2000, the West Bank olive harvest has been extensively covered by the press, with reporters accompanying Palestinian farmers and villagers out to the groves.

The olive harvest, as a proportion of the Palestinian economy, is not particularly big, but for many families and villages, it represents the prime, or even only, source of income. The olive tree is also invested with heavy symbolic value; rooted in the soil, ancient, it has come to represent Palestinian steadfastness in the face of concerted efforts to remove them from their land.

The restrictions and problems faced by the Palestinians are easily summarised: some have land the wrong side of Israel’s Separation Wall, a no-man’s land totalling 10 per cent of the West Bank, increasingly cut off from the rest of the Occupied Territories. Those farmers separated from their groves by the Wall depend on permission by the Israeli military to reach their property, access that is often granted for far less time than is necessary.

There are Palestinians who complain that the IDF, while assisting in some places, cause problems in others. On the other hand, it is clear that in some cases the Civil Administration (the occupation’s bureaucracy for managing the Palestinian population) have coordinated the harvest ahead of time with the military and Palestinian communities, to ensure things go smoothly.

The reason why such a high degree of planning is required is not just because of Israeli measures such as travel permissions, checkpoints, and the Wall. Perhaps the most high-profile problem facing the farmers is assault and interference by Israeli settlers. Not all settlers are gun-hugging bigots – but the ones that are, cannot bear the sight of Palestinians working the land of ‘Judea and Samaria’ that belongs to the Jewish people.

Palestinians, international observers, and Israeli volunteers have all been subjected to threats, physical attack, intimidation, while olive trees and harvest tools have been vandalised. The extent of the violence across the West Bank provoked Ehud Barak into publicly lambasting the settlers responsible as “hooligans”, while Mahmoud Abbas wondered why the Israeli army could not simply stop the settlers.

The story of the olive harvest is repeated in similar fashion: Palestinian villagers face numerous obstacles due to Israeli security measures and the risk of attacks by extremist settlers. Some Israeli soldiers help and some don’t seem to do much, while other Israelis – like Rabbis for Human Rights – have actually chosen to help the Palestinians harvest.

This is often as far as it goes, with the bigger picture left out. Firstly, and obviously, the restrictions faced by Palestinians and enforced by the IDF are not just a problem in October and November, but all year round. Secondly, while sometimes presented as regrettably harsh but necessary security measures, the network of checkpoints, limited access roads and barriers – reinforced by paperwork – are in fact elements of the apartheid system in the West Bank, separating Israelis and Palestinians, and Palestinians from their land and livelihoods.

Secondly, a lot of the coverage of events in the West Bank in recent months has given the impression that there is increased tension and violence between settlers and Palestinians on account of a new, more ‘radical’ generation emerging – the so-called ‘hilltop youth’ settlers – who defy their elders and set up unauthorised outposts outside the established colony’s boundaries.

Yet these outposts are a distraction, their ‘illegality’ an entirely disingenuous distinction between one kind of illegitimate colony and another. Moreover, the problem in the West Bank is not one of ‘religious extremist’ settlers; it is the entire Israeli ‘matrix of control’ and colony network that covers Palestinian land with land-grabbing, territory-fragmenting fortresses.

The main settlement blocs, state-sponsored of course, have even been growing, along with their associated settler-only roads, ‘security’ buffer zones and the like. The right-wing nuts in the outposts might get the headlines, but it is the blocs of Ma’ale Adumim, Ariel, Gush Etzion (not to mention the East Jerusalem) that mean Palestinian statehood remains a hypothetical rather than anything approaching reality.

A reporter on the Arabic TV network Abu Dhabi observed the hurried, furtive olive-picking of the Palestinians and noted how it looked as if the farmers were stealing their own olives. An aptly ironic microcosm of Palestinian life under Israeli rule, as they are made to feel like interlopers in their own land by both settler extremists, and the Israeli state itself.