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Harvesting Justice in Palestine

Kate Raphael
Date Published: 
February 14, 2003

On October 16, several hundred farmers from the Palestinian village of Yasouf set out to harvest olives on the terraced valley to the west of the village. With them was a group of international activists from the US, Canada and Europe, and a number of Israelis from Rabbis for Human Rights and Ta’ayush (Partnership). The internationals were organized by the International Solidarity Movement and International Women’s Peace Service, as part of the first international campaign to protect the Palestinian olive harvest. Olive trees are the leading agricultural crop in Palestine, covering 45% of all cultivated land. Though agriculture officially comprises only 7% of Palestinian GDP, 60% of the Palestinian population is rural, so a majority of Palestinians depend on olive trees and their primary products, olive oil and olive oil soap. The two years of repression and reinvasion following the outbreak of the Intifada in September 2000 have devastated the Palestinian economy in general, and the olive industry in particular. In the last two years, 17% of cultivated land has been bulldozed and almost half a million trees uprooted, the majority of them olive trees. The destroyed land has been annexed by new or existing Israeli colonies (“settlements”) in the occupied West Bank, or has been part of construction projects such as Israeli-only bypass roads, “security zones,” fences and military checkpoints around settlements. Trees are also destroyed as collective punishment for such crimes as resisting new settlement construction or throwing stones at Israeli military jeeps. Recently in the village of Jayyous, 15 trees in a woman’s family land were cut down because children had hidden in her groves to throw stones at jeeps terrorizing their village. The confiscation and destruction of trees—as well as sustained harassment by Israeli settlers and army—has resulted in a 70% decrease in agricultural production in the last two years, leaving an estimated 66% of Palestinian households below the poverty level. Olive trees grow everywhere in Palestine, from Jenin to Bethlehem, and even in parts of the water-deprived Gaza Strip. In the lush central area of Salfit, where Yasouf is located, olives and olive oil play a central role in village life. Every family in the area has trees—even professionals who work during the week still harvest on Fridays, the Palestinian weekend. Some, like our landlord, Abu Rabia, work all day and stay up all night taking their olives to the press. Women get up at 5:00a.m. to ready the family’s food and clothes for the day, get the children ready for school and often prepare dinner which can be heated quickly when the family returns from the fields at 5:00pm. A “good year” The olive harvest is biennial, meaning that every other year is a strong harvest. 2002 was the first “good year” since the Israeli stranglehold to crush the Intifada began. With the Palestinian economy and infrastructure so heavily damaged, it was extremely important that the farmers be able to make the most of the harvest season. The Ministry of Agriculture sets the official picking dates, and this year the harvest was to be conducted between October 15 and November 15. Families from Yasouf began their harvest a full two weeks early, and by October 16, had already been attacked several times by groups of settlers from Tapuach, one of the most violent ideological settlements in the West Bank, and its outpost, New Tapuach, consisting of followers of the ultra-racist party Kahane Lives. The Israeli police had repeatedly promised to protect the Palestinians, but always ended up telling them to go home “for their own protection,” and the army would declare the area a “closed military zone.” On this day, the army had made a commitment to protect the Palestinians against the heavily armed settlers. The Palestinians had also made a commitment, inspired by the presence among them of international activists with experience in nonviolent resistance, to respond to any attack by gathering and sitting down. Almost immediately after the Palestinians reached the groves on the ridge between the two Tapuach settlements, some of which they had not been to in two years because of fear and intimidation, a group of settlers descended upon them with M16s, knives, clubs and stones. At least one woman was kicked by a settler, others was hit by stones. The Israeli and international activists interposed their bodies between the settlers and farmers as the stones were aimed mainly at Palestinians, especially the women. Settler violence Palestinian and Israeli human rights organizations documented at least 12 cases of massive settler violence against Palestinian harvesters between October 6 and October 21. During that time the entire population of Yanoun, a tiny village of only about 100 people surrounded by settlements, was driven out of their homes by vicious attacks. International volunteers and Palestinian harvesters were tear-gassed by the army near the Ariel fence, and the Army declared “no-picking days” several times in retaliation for bombings or other actions in the West Bank. Meanwhile, in the midst of the harvest, bulldozers and chainsaws chopped off the branches and uprooted hundreds of trees in the villages of Qalqilya and Tulkarem for the multi-billion dollar “separation barrier,” which will further imprison and impoverish the people of the West Bank. Over 100 activists from more than a dozen countries including Spain, Latvia and Australia participated in the harvest campaign. In one village, Marda, where villagers have land near Ariel and Tapuach, activists picked with families who fled to Venezuela in 1948 and returned during the Oslo period. Since there were two Spanish volunteers and some North Americans who are fluent in Spanish, Spanish was the official language during those picking days. Activists learned about the cultural and economic significance of olive trees, olives and olive oil, as well as the frustrations and degradations of occupation. We learned the difference between reddish-black and green olives, which give the best oil, and how to preserve them for eating. I was gratified that the Communists (now called Palestinian People’s Party) don’t fast in their fields during Ramadan, though one party leader tried to convince the traditional Muslims in his village that he did (they didn’t believe him). As a follow-up to the harvest, activists in the States and in Europe are looking into possibilities for marketing the olive oil. The price has dropped precipitously in the last few years, making a terrible economic situation far worse. Israel makes it increasingly difficult for Palestine to market to the Arab world, and most WTO countries have restrictions on edible product that make it difficult or impossible for Palestinian oil to pass customs. Now seasoned harvesters, some of us are plotting to market ourselves to olive growers in Tuscany as mercenary pickers, to finance future trips to Palestine. About the Author Kate Raphael is a member of the International Women’s Peace Service-Palestine. To find out about marketing fair trade Palestinian olive oil, contact larudee(at) To find out about joining future International Solidarity Movement campaigns to end the occupation of Palestine, see For information about International Women’s Peace Service in Palestine, see