Palestine’s Burning Olive Groves

"Lit from a blessed tree, an olive, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil is well-nigh luminous, though fire scarce touched it … " 

Quran 24:35

"And when he had set the brands on fire, he let them go into the standing corn of the Philistines, and burnt up both the shocks, and also the standing corn, with the vineyards and olives." 

Judges 15:5 

Olives and olive oil. Nothing symbolizes Palestinian land, identity and culture as they do. They are the hallmarks of national pride and the veritable heart of Palestine’s agricultural economy. 

Although the subjugation and daily humiliation of occupation takes various forms in East Jerusalem and the West Bank—demeaning checkpoint searches; arrest and interrogation of minors; preventing ambulances from expeditiously transporting the sick to hospitals; the eviction of families and demolition of homes—few situations evoke more outrage and deep sadness as do the torching of olive orchards by vigilante settlers. 

Last Friday was the official start of the olive harvest season in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Gunfire and real fire once again heralded its opening. Hundreds of trees were burned by settlers as Israeli soldiers looked on. Fire trucks were prevented from helping put out the blaze in what has become an annual ritual of despoiling the land by those who have illegally settled on it.   

To coincide with the beginning of the harvest, the international relief agency Oxfam released its report, "The Road to Olive Farming: Challenges to Developing the Economy of Olive Oil in the West Bank" on Oct. 15 in Jerusalem. 

Oxfam indicates that Palestinian olive oil production contributes $100 million annually to some of the poorest, most disadvantaged families and communities in the West Bank. It is a primary source of revenue for the economy and nearly half of all agricultural land use is devoted to it. As one of the territory’s major exports, the extent to which olives and olive oil contributes to employment opportunities and income for 100,000 Palestinian farming families cannot be overstated.  

Yet, the Israeli government deliberately prevents access to land where olive farms are located. 

"Physical barriers such as checkpoints and road blocks have restricted the free movement of people and goods within the West Bank and obstructed access for Palestinian agricultural produce, including olives and olive oil, to internal, Israeli and international markets," the report said. 

It also concluded the Israeli government sanctions settler violence against the groves, which include stealing its fruits, torching or uprooting tens of thousands of trees and attacking farmers to intimidate them from harvesting their crops. 

"Settler attacks and harassment against Palestinian olive farmers are common." 

And Friday was no exception. As the AFP reported, settlers swooped down on the groves with automatic weapons, setting olive trees ablaze and chanting "Out, Out."  

This year’s violence has been characterized as one of the worst in recent history. Despite the well-known identities of the assailants, nearly all go unprosecuted. 

In a five-year study tracking 97 cases of Palestinian land vandalism, the Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din (Volunteers for Human Rights) found that police investigations did not yield a single indictment, with all cases closed due to insufficient evidence or "unknown perpetrators."

"The law enforcement authorities are not responding to the ongoing harm done to the livelihood of Palestinian families," said lead researcher Yior Lavne. 

Savaging the cultural heritage and economic viability of a people is an odious practice. Under any other circumstance, the deliberate, purposeful desecration of land and sabotage of livelihoods would be considered a war crime. It is time the international community call what is happening in the West Bank just that. 

Support Palestinian farmers through fair-trade purchase of their olive oil. 

Author: Rannie Amiri

Rannie Amiri is an independent Middle East commentator.