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Bitter harvest: Israeli settlements close in on Palestinian olive farmers

For villagers of Wadi Fuqin, harvest is a regular reminder of the occupation’s impact on Palestinian agriculture
The illegal Israeli settlement of Beitar Illit overlooks the olive groves of Wadi Fuqin (MEE/Chloé Benoist)

WADI FUQIN, Occupied West Bank - As the Manasra family picked olives from one of its fields in early November, marking the tail end of the harvesting season, the low rumbling of construction equipment in the nearby illegal Israeli settlement of Beitar Illit served as a reminder of the uncertainty ruling the small Palestinian community’s existence.

Squeezed between the settlements of Beitar Illit and Tzur Hadassah, and directly adjacent to the Green Line demarcating the border between the occupied West Bank and Israel, Wadi Fuqin has fought since the establishment of the state of Israel to preserve its livelihood and presence on the village’s lands, which once were renowned as the “food basket” of the Bethlehem area.

“We are surrounded by all these settlements, and we are stuck in the middle with only one road out,” Nadia Manasra, a matriarch of the family, told Middle East Eye. “It feels like a prison.”

“None of my human rights are applied, most of the lands down in the valley are confiscated or under threat of confiscation, and we don’t know what our fate will be here,” Mohammad Moussa Manasra, Nadia’s husband, told MEE.

“But in spite of everything, we try to adapt to our situation.”

Economic, symbolic importance

Mohammad Manasra, also known as Abu Nader, picks olives on his lands in the southern Occupied West Bank village of Wadi Fuqin on 10 November 2017, as the Israeli settlement of Beitar Illit lies in the distance (MEE/Chloé Benoist)

In 1948, following the creation of the state of Israel, residents of Wadi Fuqin were pushed out of their village by Israeli forces, fleeing to the Dheisheh refugee camp just south of Bethlehem city.

While Israeli authorities allowed Palestinians from Wadi Fuqin to cultivate their lands during the daytime, they were forbidden from actually living in the village.

Mohammad Manasra, also known as Abu Nader, was born in 1950 in a grotto in the Wadi Fuqin area, where his parents were living in defiance of Israeli orders.

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In 1972, Israel finally permitted Palestinians to return to live in the village, officially due to a lack of space in Dheisheh.

The Manasras gave birth to their daughter that year, the first child to be officially born in the village in more than 20 years, the elderly couple said with pride. 

In Wadi Fuqin, as elsewhere in occupied Palestinian territory, olive trees carry economic importance as a major agricultural resource, but also as a symbol of Palestinian resilience – the trees being carefully tended to by Wadi Fuqin residents for years, even when they were forbidden from living in the area.

Olive trees can take up to 20 years before they are mature enough to bear fruit, with many trees in the Palestinian territory and Israel being hundreds of years old and some even dating back 1,000 years.

A juvenile olive tree partially submerged in rubble due to Israeli settlement construction in the area of Wadi Fuqin (MEE/Chloé Benoist)

“The Palestinian people have this connection to olive trees because they inherited them from their families,” said Muhanad Qaisi, who leads the Olive Tree Campaign seeking to raise awareness abroad and help Palestinian farmers in Area C - the 60 percent of the West Bank under full Israeli military control.

“As part of the (Israeli-Palestinian) conflict, Palestinians are trying to preserve the olive trees, because they are our memory, our heritage, and our history. Whenever some trees are uprooted or destroyed, it means memories, heritage, and history are being demolished.”

Palestinian villages in Area C, like Wadi Fuqin, have seen their agricultural lands increasingly confiscated by Israeli authorities in the 50-year occupation of the West Bank, either through settlement building, the construction of the illegal Israeli separation wall, or through the declaration of Israeli “state lands” and “closed military zones”.

Palestinians are trying to preserve the olive trees, because they are our memory, our heritage, and our history. Whenever some trees are uprooted or destroyed, it means memories, heritage, and history are being demolished

- Muhanad Qaisi, director of the Olive Tree Campaign

While the Applied Research Institute-Jerusalem (ARIJ) has reported that Wadi Fuqin currently lies on 3,262 dunams (806 acres) of land, Abu Nader told MEE that before the creation of Israel, land belonging to Wadi Fuqin residents extended over 12,000 dunams (2,965 acres).

Meanwhile, according to the United Nations, some 326,400 dunams (80,655 acres) of arable land are currently off limits to Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territory, deeply impacting agricultural production and the broader Palestinian economy.

Continuous settlement expansion on the hilltops surrounding Wadi Fuqin has led to some 20 wells providing water to the village to dry up, Qaisi said, adding that the settlements were also dumping rubble produced by construction into the valley where Palestinian crops are cultivated, partially burying a number of olive trees in the area.

“Now the settlements are up on top of the hill,” Nour Abu Kamal, the Manasras’ grandson, told MEE, gesturing towards the white buildings under construction and tower cranes overlooking the valley.

“But who knows how much closer to us they will be next year, and how far down the valley they will go.”

Olive trees uprooted

Settlers from Beitar Illit and Tzur Hadassah regularly target Wadi Fuqin residents, who told MEE of numerous instances of settler harassment, often under Israeli military protection.  

The Palestinian villagers spoke of settlers cutting or uprooting olive trees, damaging irrigation pipes and greenhouses, stealing donkeys, poisoning dogs, or even bathing naked in natural pools in the area in front of Palestinian families.

According to a 2013 report by Visualizing Palestine, Israeli authorities have uprooted more than 800,000 olive trees since 1967 – a land equivalent of 33 Central Parks.

Meanwhile, according to human rights NGO Yesh Din, Israeli investigations into settler vandalism targeting olive trees almost never results in an indictment.

Nadia Manasra stands in her olive grove in the village of Wadi Fuqin on 10 November 2017 (MEE/Chloé Benoist)

For Abu Nader, Israeli settlers are attacking Wadi Fuqin’s agriculture - including its olive trees - “because they want us to leave.”

“Unfortunately, they do not see us as people,” he said.

“The Israeli government fosters hatred of Palestinians in its citizens until they believe that all Arabs are the same, that all Palestinians are dangerous. This mentality conditions Israelis to be fine with discrimination and the genocide of the Palestinian people.”

The Israelis made a mistake in letting us come back in the 1970s, because they gave us our rights back

- Nadia Manasra

Organisations like Qaisi’s actively recruit visiting foreigners to participate in olive harvests across the West Bank in order to deter Israeli violence, as Qaisi explained that Israeli soldiers and settlers were less likely to use force against Palestinians in front of international witnesses in an attempt to not tarnish Israel’s image abroad.

But in spite of all the pressure imposed on them by both Israeli governmental policies and settler violence, the residents of Wadi Fuqin are determined to remain on their lands.

“The Israelis made a mistake in letting us come back in the 1970s, because they gave us our rights back,” Nadia Manasra said wryly.

“But now we’re here, and we’re not going anywhere.”

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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