“If the olive trees knew the hands that planted them, their oil would become tears.” – Mahmoud Darwish
For Palestinians, geographical ties to the land are not only woven deeply into every aspect of their identity, but depended on for survival. One defining element of Palestinian identity that remains threatened by Israeli forces is the generational farming practice of planting and harvesting olive trees. The prominence of olive trees in Palestine is one that extends deeply into every aspect of society and contributes to the overall livelihood and sustenance of the Palestinian population.
Often regarded as a symbol of vitality and peace, olive trees are known for their ability to thrive in harsh conditions. These drought-resistant trees can grow and produce fruit for thousands of years and are a staple in Palestinian households. They represent a resilient and unwavering attachment to the land that parallels that of the Palestinian people.
This symbolism dates back to one of the oldest trees in the world, Bethlehem’s Al-Badawi, which stands at 4000 years old and is named after Ahmad Al-Badawi, a villager in the town of Al-Walaja who was often found reflecting under the tree over two centuries ago. This olive tree was reported to be the meeting place of villagers who gathered to distribute food to the poor and is a staple piece of local heritage. Like all agriculture in the region, Al-Badawi remains vulnerable to confiscation and is carefully guarded by the community, representing yet another manifestation of Palestinian resistance.
The olive harvest also has economic significance as a source of income for over 100,000 Palestinians. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, approximately 45% of agricultural land is made up of olive trees, and the olive oil industry makes up a quarter of the region’s gross agricultural income. The harvest season also creates ample job opportunities for Palestinians, with an approximated 1,353 people employed to work across the 265 operating olive presses in the West Bank. Without the maintenance of these century-old agricultural practices, the remaining economic agency in the region would diminish, causing already high unemployment levels to increase exponentially.
Despite their evident importance to Palestinian livelihood, the full potential of the olive sector remains thwarted by the occupation. Israeli settlers utilize the destruction of olive trees as yet another means to forcibly exile Palestinians from their own land. Olive trees are often maintained within Palestinian territories that should be free of militarized presence, yet Israeli forces politically weaponize the harvest season by invading even the last morsels of land belonging to Palestinians. Farmers are vulnerable to random attacks, loss of crops to illegal settlers, and even the contamination of their already scarce water supply. More than 1 million olive trees have been uprooted since 1967.
Aside from the destruction of trees, water theft continues to be an alarming issue for these farmers. 85% of water resources in Palestine go directly to illegal settlers. With Israel seizing complete control over all water-related infrastructures in the Palestinian territories since 1967, Palestinian access to water is restricted on an inhumane level. Palestinians cannot undergo any sort of water installation without being granted a permit from the Israeli army, which is nearly impossible for Palestinians to obtain. Parts of the West Bank that neighbor Israeli settlements are labeled as closed military areas, barring Palestinians from entering and thus restricting their water access. Meanwhile, Israeli settlers that live among Palestinians in the West Bank face no restrictions and remain unaffected by licensing requirements. This contributes to the economic decline of agricultural efforts in Palestine and ensures that Palestinians are held economically captive.
According to the Applied Research Institue – Jerusalem, an estimated 50.9% of Palestinian families in the West Bank have daily access to water while only 30% have access in Gaza. With a reported 72 liters per capita per day in the West Bank and 96 liters per day in Gaza, the occupied Palestinian territories rank in as having some of the lowest per capita water accessibility worldwide. In addition, the water that is available faces extreme contamination, specifically in Gaza where this issue makes 90-95% of water unsuitable for irrigation or drinking. Despite Israel’s legal obligation to make sure that the needs of the occupied territories are met in regards to access to natural resources, water continues to be inhumanely weaponized against the Palestinian people. In fact, the United Nations Development Programme affirms that “the Israeli disruption and destruction of Palestinian water and agricultural infrastructure (e.g. prevention of the development of water infrastructure, destruction of olive groves) is prima facie breaches of international humanitarian law.”
Israel systematically causes the erasure of Palestinian culture, heritage, and livelihood–all elements that arise from the physical geography of the land. Palestinian history and culture are deeply connected to the land and its bounty. The olive harvest is not only an important means of economic gain, but one that fosters a sense of community and retains heritage. Thousands of Palestinian families unite annually to gather olives from trees before they are taken to olive oil mills. Soon after, the olives turn into elements of traditional dishes at celebration and gatherings that fuel Palestinian culture and life.
Palestinians celebrate the olive season by taking the whole family out to the groves, teaching children how to make olive pickles in the classroom, and even singing traditional songs about the prized trees. Most importantly, the harvest season brings Palestinians together to tend to the same trees for which their ancestors fought and protected for generations. Due to their long life span, many of these trees have survived generations, and their maintenance directly contributes to the retention of Palestinian history which constantly faces the threat of erasure. The olive harvest in Palestine is an act of resistance to Israel’s occupation, and the removal of these trees is yet another tactic to forcibly exile an indigenous population from a land that is deeply embedded into every aspect of their existence.