West Bank Olive Harvest Marred by 50% Surge in Thefts, Vandalism and Violence, UN Report Says

Forty-seven incidents of violence toward Palestinians and their property took place over the past tree months ■ Israel Police closed most cases because perpetrators were not identified

הגר שיזף
Hagar Shezaf
A Palestinian trying to extinguish a fire in an olive grove near the Palestinian village of Burin in the northern West Bank on October 16, 2019.
A Palestinian trying to extinguish a fire in an olive grove near the Palestinian village of Burin in the northern West Bank on October 16, 2019.Credit: AFP
הגר שיזף
Hagar Shezaf

The number of incidents of interference in the Palestinian olive harvest in the West Bank this year has increased by 50 percent compared to 2018, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported.

Every year the fall olive harvest is marked by an upsurge in violence toward Palestinians and their property, including claims of the theft of olives and of harvesting equipment. Access to some of the olive groves in the West Bank, particularly near Jewish settlements, requires advance coordination with the Israeli army. The list of sites requiring such permission is revised every year and some sites are declared off limits in advance or in the course of the harvest.

There were 47 incidents reported in the course of this year’s harvest season — between September and November — including nine involving violence toward Palestinians, 27 involving the theft of equipment or of olives that had been picked before the owners of the trees harvested them and 11 cases of damage to a total of 437 trees, the UN agency, the OCHA, reported. The figures don't include 30 trees in the village of A-Sawiya that were vandalized last Friday.

Most of the incidents occurred in the vicinity of Nablus and Ramallah, and the data indicate an increase in olive thefts and assaults compared to last year.

The village of Yasouf

“Every year there are a lot of incidents during the harvest season, but this year has been particularly bad,” Khaled Abbieh, the mayor of the village of Yasouf, told Haaretz.

Last year between September and November, 25 incidents were reported during the olive harvest, according to OCHA, including four violent incidents, eight cases of theft of olives or equipment and 13 involving the destruction of trees. All told, 806 trees were vandalized. In 2017, there were 23 reported incidents, including two involving violence, 13 thefts of olives or equipment and eight cases of damage to trees. That year 1,554 trees were damaged.

The Israel Police responded as follows: "The security forces are prepared and deployed on the ground at all times, particularly during the harvest, to prevent disturbances of the peace and incidents involving friction and crime among the various populations of Judea and Samaria [the West Bank], all with the aim of maintaining the security of the residents as well as enabling the Palestinian population to conduct the harvest in the olive groves that they own.

"We view any act of violence or hooliganism of any kind with severity, and therefore, any complaint to the police regarding the commission of a crime is thoroughly and professionally dealt with and investigated with the aim of ascertaining the truth and bringing those involved to justice."

Rajah Mahmoud, a farmer from Yasouf, said that in July of this year, 16 trees that are hundreds of years old and that he had been cultivating were damaged. In September, he discovered that the olives on 38 of his trees had been picked, which was followed last week by the theft of the olives on another 47 trees. “We work the land, fertilize it and want to profit from it,” he said. Mahmoud estimated that he has lost 300 kilos (660 pounds) of olives to theft over a two-year period.

Asam Abdullah, who is also from Yasouf, said that 35 of his olive trees were damaged on November 19. He said he had seen people whom he identified as Israeli settlers in the area the day before. He said he was not concerned because a road separates his plot of land from a nearby settlement. He said he discovered the damage at 7 A.M. the next morning, bringing him to tears.

Officials from the Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank and from the Palestinian Authority arrived at the scene. Abdullah did not file a complaint with the Israeli police. He said the Civil Administration had told him that the police would be dispatched but that they have not come to investigate.

“I am a law-abiding person and want to complain to the police,” he said. “I don’t understand. If any of the Palestinian residents so much as approach the settlement fence, somebody from the army comes in an instant. There are cameras everywhere. So why when somebody steals or damages the trees, doesn’t anyone do anything?”

Israeli volunteers

He said his trees can take four to five years to recover from the damage. A few days after the vandalism, Israeli volunteers came to help Abdullah apply pitch to the trees to prevent them from being infested by insects.

On a regular basis, the Israeli organization Yesh Din: Volunteers for Human Rights provides assistance to Palestinians who wish to file police complaints. Although the organization does not have data on this year’s harvest, following the 2017 harvest, the organization said it assisted in filing six complaints. Four cases were closed on the grounds that the perpetrator had not been identified. The decision to close another file was appealed and a decision on the appeal is pending. The sixth case is still under investigation.

The following year, 2018, Yesh Din assisted in the filing of five complaints, of which four were closed because the perpetrators were not identified. The investigation in the fifth case ended on the grounds of a lack of public interest.

Israeli volunteers also came to the assistance of Mohammed Asous, 29, of Burin, a Palestinian village next to the settlement Yizhar. Some of his trees are adjacent to the settlement itself. He also has other trees near the settlement of Har Bracha but doesn’t harvest them because of the need to coordinate it with the Israeli army.

He began asking the Israeli volunteers to accompany him to harvest the trees that he continues to pick, because he said he felt that harvesting them alone was dangerous. His fiancée, he added, had argued with him over going at all. Rocks were thrown at him during the most recent harvest.

Other villagers have abandoned their olive trees, he said, as he looked at an unharvested tree.

Rabbis for Human Rights

On one occasion, volunteers from Rabbis for Human Rights came to help him pick his olives – but during the harvest, the organization said settlers came and threw rocks at them and attacked them with sticks.

Rabbis for Human Rights activist who was allegedly attacked by Jewish settlers in the Palestinian village of Burin in the northern West Bank, October 16, 2019. Credit: Courtesy of Rabbis for Human Rights

Eighty-year-old Rabbi Moshe Yehudai, who is on the organization’s management committee, was injured in the head and leg. He was taken for treatment to Meir Hospital in Kfar Sava by ambulance, where his condition was described as light. The other volunteers were evacuated from the site.

When Asous visited the plot the following day, accompanied by volunteers, he was told that a closure order had been issued for the site, to which he could have access but not the volunteers. Later he was shown an order requiring that he also leave the site. When he refused, he was removed by Border Police.

“Why do they let settlers come to this land, but not us?” he asked. “I just want to get my olives and leave.”

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