Salfit, occupied West Bank – Zuhdi Hassan has farmed his land in Salfit governate in the Israeli-occupied West Bank for decades, but this year has been especially bad for him.
Like other Palestinian olive farmers struggling to harvest their crops largely due to Israeli settler attacks, movement restrictions and poor rainfall, the 57-year-old faces financial trouble this season.
“I have 60 olive trees on my land beyond the separation wall. Normally they produce about 18 sacks of olives but this year, after the settler attacks, my son was only able to fill two sacks with olives,” Hassan told Al Jazeera.
Farmers and their supporters in Salfit last month had to watch helplessly as Israeli settlers from the adjacent, illegal settlement of Ariel chopped down and set fire to hundreds of olive trees on their land. The settlers also stole olives and took bulldozers used to work the agricultural fields.
“The farmers were unable to stop the destruction and reach their land because it’s on the other side of the separation wall and the gates were locked,” said Majd Snono, a spokesman for Salfit municipality.
“We called the Israeli Civil Administration to tell them what is happening and to try and coordinate reaching our land, but by the time we received permission to enter the land, the damage had already been done and the settlers were gone,” Snono told Al Jazeera.
Israel’s separation barrier goes beyond the internationally recognised Green Line, which divides the West Bank from Israel proper, with 85 percent of it cutting deeply into the West Bank in areas where the Israeli authorities are expropriating Palestinian land for the benefit of settlers and new settlements.
According to the Israeli rights group B’Tselem, “a key factor in determining the barrier’s route was the location of settlements, thereby laying the groundwork for the de facto annexation of most of the settlements and much land for their future expansion”.
The group says the wall acts as a “major political instrument for furthering Israeli annexationist goals”, adding that it serves for Israel’s annexation of almost 10 percent of the West Bank.
Restrictions on farmers
Salfit’s olive oil industry brings in about $1.5m each year. The olive season is not over yet, yet the municipality estimates that 150 farmers have lost at least a quarter of their usual annual yield so far. By the end of the olive season next month, this loss would reach more than half of their annual yield.
About a quarter of Salfit’s population work as labourers in the olive industry and their livelihoods have also been hit hard, with poor rains compounding the problem.
Hassan, the farmer, said that while was been able to harvest the olives from his trees on land in the Ad-Darajeh area of Salfit near the separation wall, a shortage of rainfall affected production.
“Normally, I produce about 20 large plastic containers of olive oil, but this year I will only produce about six to seven containers,” added Hassan. “I think next year’s harvest will also be poor because of the settlers and their continued destruction of our trees.”
Salfit Mayor Abdelkarim Zubeidi said that in addition to the settlers’ acts of vandalism, including the destruction of 500 olive trees over the past six weeks, the farmers have struggled to reach their lands due to severe restrictions by the Civil Administration – the Israeli army’s administrative body in the West Bank.
“At some of the gates, the administration gives the farmers very short periods of time to enter their lands and harvest the olives, approximately 20 minutes three times a day which is not enough time for the farmers to reach their land, prepare it and pick their olives,” Zubeidi told Al Jazeera.
“Also, even when we are given specific times, the soldiers don’t show up to let the farmers through the gates or they tell us to come tomorrow and then they don’t arrive on time if at all.”
In a statement earlier this month, the International Committee of the Red Cross said that “on top of the ongoing restrictions and violence, climate change and changing weather patterns have further deepened the crisis” for Palestinian farmers.
“The year 2020 has witnessed an exceptionally poor olive harvest season, with over a 55% decrease in the harvest yield. This has been attributed to the alternate fruit-bearing ‘on and off seasons’, coupled with uneven rainfall distribution and temperature extremes during the growing cycle.”
For Ahmed Maraita, a 42-year-old employee at the Salfit municipality, farming his olives is an extra source of income.
His land is situated in the Abdulrahman Valley area of Salfit, part of which is located near the separation wall, so he has been able to access it without trying to fit into the Civil Administration’s draconian schedule.
“While I haven’t had problems picking olives like those farmers on the other side of the separation wall, the constant problems with the Israelis have taken away the community spirit and joy of picking olives, and families no longer gather the way they used to,” said Maraita, who was joined at the field by his son and mother.
Another farmer, Mahmoud Jadallah, 49, recently purchased land farmed with olive trees in the Wadi Salamah Valley of Salfit. He is optimistic about his new venture.
“I haven’t had time to work the land, and this is my first harvest ever, so I can’t judge how much the yield should be this year,” Jadallah, a general in the Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces, told Al Jazeera.
“But I believe that if you work the land and treat it well, you will be rewarded.”
The farmers, other village volunteers and left-wing Israeli activists have not taken the Israeli restrictions passively and tried to enter their restricted fields several weeks ago when the olive season began.
The situation ended violently when some of the activists were assaulted and arrested by Israeli soldiers after they tried to cross a cordoned-off area.
“The soldiers were very harsh and brutal with us and prevented officials from the PA from entering the area,” said Snono.
“They are trying to destroy the deep connection we have with our land as well as our livelihoods in the hope they can drive us out,” he added.
However, despite the ongoing struggle to reach their land and olive trees, the people of Salfit remain defiant and determined.
“We are optimistic that in the end, the settlers will have to leave the lands they have occupied, and the rightful owners will one day be able to farm freely because there is no occupation that has ever lasted permanently,” said Zubeidi, the mayor of Sulfit.
“This land and its identity are Palestinian and Arab.”