Bethlehem, occupied West Bank – The rocky terraces of the Cremisan Valley are mostly overgrown and wild these days, as local landowners say they have lost all hope of keeping control over the more than 300 hectares of olive trees and orchards along the sloping mount, confiscated by the Israeli government earlier this year.
“I haven’t been here at all this year. Look how the weeds have grown over, and trash from the street has piled up,” Ricardo Jaweejat said, motioning towards the vast olive grove that has belonged to his family for generations.
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“What’s the point? When we learned the Israelis were taking the land, I avoided doing anything with it. It’s a little bit dangerous to be here now.”
Beit Jala olives are known by Palestinians around the world for producing the finest olive oil, and the oil from the city’s Cremisan Valley is considered to be the best of Beit Jala, a district of the Bethlehem municipality in the southern occupied West Bank. This year is expected to be the last chance to harvest olives from the valley, which will soon be blocked off by an extension of Israel’s separation wall.
The land, now technically the property of the Israeli government, will be closed off to those who normally depend on the autumn olive harvest for what the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem has called an “indispensable source of income”.
Jaweejat was one of about a dozen families who went through a nine-year legal battle with the Israeli government in the hope of keeping their land. In April of last year, an Israeli high court ruled in favour of the petition by Beit Jala residents – but nine months later, an appeal was brought forth, and the court reinstated the original route of the separation wall, annexing the valley.
Jaweejat said that he would like to hope that one day his family will be able to return to Cremisan, but he has never heard of a case of confiscated land going back to its Palestinian owners.
“We try of course, but it’s hard to hold on to any hope,” he said.
Driving back from the valley, through the middle of the Christian-majority city of Beit Jala, cars stopped as an Israeli military Jeep passed through an intersection.
“We can’t avoid them,” Jaweejat said, motioning to the large green Jeep. “They come and go through our neighbourhoods as they please, and take whatever they want.”
The Jeep drove through a part of Beit Jala that is in Area A, which is supposed to be under full Palestinian Authority control. But due to the Israeli military base at the top of the city’s mount, which is in Area C – under full Israeli control – the Israeli military presence is normal in both areas of the city.
At the top of Beit Jala’s mount, the illegal Israeli settlement of Gilo can be seen clearly on the northwest horizon. To the northeast is Har Gilo, and in between them is the Cremisan Valley.
While the Israeli government alleges that the separation wall’s route was planned with security in mind, Palestinian residents in the area are convinced that the route was designed to allow for the illegal settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo to be connected via the Cremisan Valley.
In July, the Israeli government approved planning initiatives for 770 new settler units to be built across from the valley, on land from the nearby Palestinian village of al-Walaja, in order to expand the Gilo settlement.
“That settlement will keep expanding until it takes up all the land from Gilo to Har Gilo. This wall has nothing to do with security – it’s simply a land grab,” Jaweejat said, pointing out that the Cremisan Valley is one of the few places left where residents of the bustling city can be around nature.
Inside Beit Jala’s olive press cooperative, dozens of Palestinians waited their turn to use the olive press and bottle this year’s fresh oil.
Ilyas Jacshan, the manager at the olive press, told Al Jazeera that at least a fifth of all his customers come to press olives from the Cremisan Valley.
“Next year we will lose all that business,” Jacshan said. “Many people who have land in Cremisan already skipped this year’s harvest, but next year there will be none.”
According to Jacshan, Beit Jala’s olive oil sells for twice as much as olive oil from outside the city, and Cremisan oil can sell for even higher.
“It’s not a normal grove these people in Cremisan are losing; it’s some of the most sought-out oil in Palestine, and from what we hear, Israel will cut down all those trees once the wall goes up,” Jacshan said.
This year’s olive harvest started later than normal, as the harvest is smaller, and the first rain did not clean away the dust on the trees – the traditional sign of the start of the harvest – until the last Friday in October.
“The mood is different this year, the harvest is bad, and many people have land and trees that are being affected by the wall that the Israelis are building. It isn’t just Cremisan; there are several areas affected,” Jachsan said.
“It is not a happy time for the harvest. People who still have access to their trees are upset with the small harvest, and for others, the harvest reminds them that something that has been in their family for generations is being taken away from them.”