It's Scorched Earth Season in the Palestinian Olive Groves

The relatively meager olive harvest in the West Bank is marred by vandalism and destruction of numerous Palestinian-owned groves.

Gideon Levy
Daniel Bar-On
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Gideon Levy
Daniel Bar-On

Here is what our eyes saw this past Monday on the lands of Jalud village: a partly scorched valley and hillsides, blackened soil, yellowish and wilting olive trees with singed trunks. And dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of trees already dead from the heat of the flames that lapped at them. The trees burned, and the charred evidence stands in the field.

Jalud is a small village of 600 people, who live in the spectacular and well-tended valley of olive trees that the settlements/outposts of Shvut Rachel, Ahiya, Adei Ad, and Esh Kodesh overlook from the surrounding hills. On Wednesday, October 9, some 20 Israelis attacked the village school when it was in session, throwing stones at its windows, vandalized the cars belonging to its teachers, and then set the olive groves alight − both those near the school and the ones in the valley, located a few hundred yards away. The arsonists were masked and split into three teams. One attacked the school, which also contains a preschool, and two others set fire to the groves.

By the time the firefighters from nearby Nablus arrived, more than an hour had gone by, and many of the 45-year-old olive trees had been burned. Harvest season is still in full swing: Some eight million Palestinian-owned olive trees have yielded their fruit this year in the West Bank, and the members of some 80,000 Palestinian families are busy picking it.

As every autumn, this is also the Israelis’ big season of destruction, theft, uprooting and arson. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, no fewer than 7,500 olive trees were vandalized last year in the West Bank. According to Palestinian Authority data, some 4,000 trees have already been ravaged this year.

This week, we saw hundreds of burned trees in the villages we visited between Ramallah and Nablus. We met farmers who had been assaulted. We saw groves where branches had been ripped off.

The sights we saw could have been among the most beautiful and pastoral around − were it not for the Israelis running amok: At this time of year, families across the West Bank set out for the groves early in the morning, set up ladders, spread out plastic sheeting and harvest together. The olive presses are also working at full tilt now, 24/7, and the oil is flowing, emitting an intoxicating aroma that can be smelled quite a distance away.

This week, Jalud farmer Abdullah Hajj Mohammed was also standing on his ladder and picking clean his olive branches; his brother Qassem stood on the ladder beside him. Fifty of his trees had been torched in recent weeks, Hajj Mohammed says − in a year with a relatively meager crop to begin with, about one-third of last year’s yield. The farmer, 52, blue-eyed and sporting an FC Barcelona cap, recounts seeing the flames spreading in his grove. This is the first time it has happened to him. And he lives solely off this crop; he estimates that this year it would have been worth a total of NIS 17,000. He values the damage caused by the arson at an estimated NIS 7,500. His black olives come streaming down onto the plastic sheets, making a hushed sound as they fall.

A symbolic olive branch lies on the dashboard of the black jeep belonging to Zakaria Sada, a field investigator for the nonprofit Rabbis for Human Rights organization, with whom we rode. Sada, a native of the village of Jit, seems to know every tree and every harvester personally, and his cellphone does not stop chirping: One olive picker was attacked in Sinjil, he hears, and another in Mughayir, both near Ramallah.

We’ll visit there later. In the meantime, we climb up a hill, on a road leading to the small outpost of Ahiya: a row of mobile homes and two permanent buildings, whose inhabitants can now look out on the partially burned valley spread at their feet. Two Israel Defense Forces jeeps are parked down below, their forces trying to protect the harvesters from further damage.

Back at the school in Jalud, a team of counselors and teachers is trying to brighten the mood today, to help the children recover from the trauma of the attack: The girls’ foreheads are decorated with paint, they hold colorful balloons and break into song and dance. The school’s iron gate is shut, to be on the safe side.

Trees were also vandalized, in which damage can range from torn or sawed branches to the loss of the tree, in the adjacent village of Qaryut. On October 19, the sound of the Israelis’ electric saws was heard there: Sixty-eight trees were vandalized; we saw some of the naked trees, which are particularly ancient ones.

On his program on Radio 103, settler-activist and former Knesset Member Aryeh Eldad said last week that the Palestinians “prune their trees” and later claim the Israelis have damaged them; on a settler website, there is a photo of a Palestinian farmer with a pruned tree as evidence of “provocations by the Palestinians.” However, the trees we saw this week had been vandalized, not “pruned,” and their branches were strewn on the ground, still bearing their fruit.

At Jalud’s ancient olive press, we meet Mohammed Muqbeil, a 72-year-old farmer who had just returned from the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. In 2007, trucks arrived at his grove and uprooted some 300 of his ancient olive trees, he tells us. The police came, caught the olive thieves and gave him back only a small number of his trees. Since then, they have been uprooted twice more, and now he is left without a grove.

At home, the elderly farmer pulls out a file bulging with documents and spreads out before us dozens of complaints that he’s submitted to the Israel Police for “damage to property under aggravated circumstances.”

According to data published lately by the Yesh Din volunteer human rights group, 97.4 percent of the complaints it submitted between 2005 and 2013 regarding damaged Palestinian olive groves in the West Bank were closed by the Samaria and Judea District Police without any indictments being issued. A report by Yesh Din ascribes this to police ineptitude.

An environmental sculpture of a Star of David bearing the inscription “Am Yisrael Hai” ‏(“the Jewish people lives”‏) stands at the entrance to the village of Al Mughayir. Resident Yasser Nassan, 29, went last Saturday to pick olives in his grove with his 70-year-old uncle. A group of Israelis came down from the hill above and assaulted the elderly man. According to testimony by villagers, Nassan tried to protect his uncle but the group then turned on him, too, with iron rods and glass shards. Nassan sustained a head injury and was hospitalized. This past Monday, he drove to the Binyamin District Police to file a complaint.

On the side of the road leading up to the settlement of Givat Haro’eh, a group of young soldiers guard farmers against attacks by Israelis. In many places in the West Bank, the farmers have to coordinate their harvesting with the IDF.

In Sinjil, Mohammed Fuqaha, 49, sits at home. On this particular morning, he had gone out to his olive groves, not far from the settlement of Ma’aleh Levona. Suddenly, three Israelis showed up, unmasked and armed, and ordered him threateningly to get off his land. Fuqaha told them it was his property − and then was assaulted by them; he sustained slight injuries to his forehead and arm. The military and police forces that arrived on the scene arrested him. He was questioned at the police station about assaulting Israelis until 3 P.M. and then released. Tomorrow morning, however, Fuqaha will return to his grove to pick his olives, he asserts, come what may.

Olive harvest. (Illustrative photo). Credit: Daniel Bar-On

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