Mommy wake up! It’s time to go pick olives! The sweet voice of my five-year-old Yasser this Friday morning didn’t feel so sweet. It was six in the morning on my first day off in a while and I was hoping to stay well-planted in dreamland until 9am.
But Yasser was too excited about his upcoming adventure, picking the olives we would eat for months to come, and being a very curious child, was curious to know how these treats end up at his table.
Olives and olive oil are a Palestinian must. Breakfast, lunch, or dinner, these two healthy offerings are never absent from a Palestinian table.
It is olive harvest in the occupied Palestinian Territory and all talk is now about olives – news of the harvest, prices of olive oil, and access to olive groves. Olive groves make up about 40 per cent of all cultivated land in the West Bank and Gaza. And olive trees account for almost 80 per cent of fruit-bearing trees in the occupied Palestinian Territory.
This product is part of the Palestinians’ identity and history an element in their collective memory, despite their reality of exile. This is why patriotic rhetoric, writings, poems, and songs abound with reference to olive trees and their stubborn roots, deeply planted in the earth – able to resist and survive.
But this important commodity is one of the most battered sectors of the economy.
In the past 10 years alone, Israel has uprooted approximately 1.2 million fruit-bearing trees, most of them olives. Israel has also confiscated tens of thousands of hectares of Palestinian land as part of its illegal settlement expansion practice and wall building. This means that thousands of Palestinian farmers have been barred or severely restricted from accessing their olive groves.
Employing an intricate and ever-changing system of permits and movement restrictions, Israeli occupation authorities control when and for how long a Palestinian farmer can access his grove to plant, plough the field, or harvest his crop.
Still, despite all these grim realities, olive harvesting remains a festive family affair in Palestine.
Yasser and I got dressed. I grabbed my camera and off we went, to help friends in the Ramallah area collect their olive harvest.
Olive planting and harvesting in the Palestinian Territory remains a largely organic exercise. And the olive harvesting methods have mostly remained immune to time and technology, making the produced olive oil among the finest in the world.
Income from olive produce provides employment for approximately 100,000 Palestinians and generates approximately $100m a year in domestic and international sales. And in the past few years, Palestinian farmers have tapped into the “Fair Trade” market. Approximately 13 percent of last year’s production was exported to Europe, North America, and the Gulf States.
But this is also a sector with unfulfilled potential. A recent study by Oxfam suggests that these profits could double if some investments were made and some changes to the harvesting process were introduced – but only if Israel ceases its practices and restrictions on the farmers.
Organic – or not outdated – or not olive harvesting is fun but labourious. And it’s women who do most of the work!
The [Palestinian] stages are as follows: thick plastic sheets are spread under the tree, the men and older boys then climb up the branches or use ladders to gently beat or shake the olives off the tree.
Meanwhile, the women and children start collecting the olives, one at a time but not from the plastic sheet that would be too easy.
First, they must go in a circular motion around the tree, collecting the olives that fall on the earth, between the rocks and thorny shrubs, or get stomped on by the kids as they play and pick this small oily wonder.
And once they have combed the surrounding radius, the women move on to the plastic sheets.
As the olives fill the buckets, the women turn to the heaps of leaves mounting on the plastic. They then sift through them, making sure they get every last olive.
This is a sticky, thorny, and tedious business and I am not too proud to say that a day of olive picking left me sore and wondering how these women can pick olives for days.
It’s also increasingly a dangerous business for Palestinian farmers. Israeli settler attacks have increased this season. Already, Palestinian organisations report that settler attacks have left hundreds of olive trees burnt, chopped, or illegally harvested.
The Israeli human rights organisation Yesh Din says 90 per cent of Israeli investigations into settler violence cases end up in failure, creating a culture of impunity among the offenders. Thankfully, we were in a relatively safe area.
For the children, this chore is quite fun and getting clothes oily and dirty is part of the day. They haggle over who found the olive first and boast about collecting the most olives in their bucket. Then, their giggles fill the field as they sneak off to do more fun things.
Mothers, grandmothers, sisters, brothers – and oh yes, children of all sizes and ages… each with a role to play and, interestingly, most only present to help and carry on with this timeless tradition.
In this traditional society, where unspoken rules and often restrictive social norms abound, women are simply indispensible. They are an integral part of the process of life, history, and agriculture.
They’re also quite funny. Working long hours under an unseasonably scorching sun, the women kept everyone engaged – painting smiles and inviting giggles on the weary faces of men and each other. Sarcasm and jokes are part of the olive harvest season a way to motivate weary hands and keep them searching for earth’s bounty.
As the sun begins to sink into the horizon, everyone picks up speed.
One day over, others still to come. The family collects the harvest and goes home.
Yasser was so happy on Friday…he insisted we return on Sunday for more olive picking.