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'I cry for my trees': Israeli settler attacks wreck Palestinian olive harvest

Israel’s settlers threaten Palestinian farmers all year long, but during harvest season, the attacks increase in intensity and number, with devastating impact
Masked Israeli settlers attack Palestinian olive farmers from the village of Hawara on fields near the settlement of Yitzhar in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on 7 October 2020 (AFP)
By Shatha Hammad in Ramallah

Walking between what remains of the 300 olive trees waiting to be harvested, 69-year-old Khaled Mashaaleh breaks down in tears.

In one day, on 14 October, Israelis from a nearby illegal settlement attacked his land, cut down and sabotaged the 300 trees he planted 20 years ago. Settlers also cut down six 1500-year-old olive trees from the Roman period.

“I cry for my trees,” said Mashaaleh, standing on his land in the Palestinian village of Jabaa on the southern outskirts of Bethlehem. “I feel that I lost the children that I’ve been raising for the past 20 years.”

He told Middle East Eye that only a couple of days prior to the Israeli settler attack, he visited his land and inspected his trees in preparation for olive picking with his family.

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“I was surprised when I got a call from one of the village residents telling me that my trees had been cut down,” said Mashaaleh, explaining that he thought it was a joke. 

“I headed straight to my land, only to find 25 dunams [25,000 square metres] of trees in my land cut down and destroyed.” 

It was not the first time that Mashaaleh’s land was targeted. In 2006, the Israeli army razed parts of his land and cut down 980 of his olive trees, claiming he did not own the land, despite the presence of documents in the family’s possession that prove ownership. 

Olive harvest season attacks 

Israeli settler attacks take place throughout the year, but they consistently increase in number and intensity during the annual olive season in Palestine, usually from mid-September to mid-November. 

In the Palestinian village of Al-Mughayyer, east of Ramallah, Israelis from the nearby settlement of El-Ad attacked the land of 60-year-old Saeed Abu Alia.

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"Our land is attacked on an annual basis by settlers. They target the land by cutting down or burning trees,” Abu Alia told MEE. 

He and his father planted 600 trees in 1982. “Today, there are only 15 olive trees left,” he said, explaining that each year they would lose a number of trees due to settler attacks.  

Two months ago, settlers cut down 120 of the family’s olive trees.

Most recently, on 26 October, he and his family visited their land, which they are only allowed access to twice a year and only through coordination with the Israeli army that dictates the days, time and the period the families are allowed on their land.

Abu Alia said that when they arrived, they saw that “there were no trees left to pick”.  

“This land was a source of income for us. Today, it has become barren,” he said.

In March, added Abu Alia, when the family went to plough the land, they found that about 20 dunams had been razed by settlers, who also took soil and rocks.

Abu Alia believes settler attacks are aimed at “taking over the land to prevent us from accessing it,” adding that he and his family are determined to win the fight.

“We will not give this land up – I will always try to be present there, and to keep replanting it,” he said.

Dual threat

Between 7 October, the start of the olive harvest, and 19 October, Israeli settlers wounded 23 Palestinian farmers, burned down or otherwise damaged 1,000 of their olive trees, and “large amounts of produce were stolen” in 19 different incidents across the West Bank, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). 

OCHA has said that settler attacks in the occupied West Bank have consistently been on the rise since 2016, and particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic. The agency reported that in the first five months of 2020, Israeli settlers committed 143 attacks, resulting in the “injury of 63 Palestinians, including 13 children, and damage to over 3,700 trees and saplings, various field crops, and more than 100 vehicles, among other assets.”

'I feel that I lost the children that I’ve been raising for the past 20 years'

- Khaled Mashaaleh

In Jaloud, south of the northern city of Nablus, local council head Abdullah Haj Mohammed told MEE that residents of the village, which is surrounded by 10 settlements and settler "outposts", faced various kinds of obstacles in tending to their lands by both the Israeli army and settlers.

Haj Mohammed said that settlers stole the olive crops of a 300-dunam plot of land, which the Israeli army only allows residents to access once a year, during the olive harvest season.

"On 19 October, we saw the settlers harvesting the olives before we managed to obtain a permit from the Israeli army to access the land,” he explained, adding that the army returned only a portion of the crops. 

This year, said Haj Mohammed, the Israeli army prevented several families in the village from reaching their land in Jaloud under the pretext of security. He pointed out that this was unusual, as residents are allowed to access their fields once a year, which he said suggests that the new settlement outpost close to the olive groves will soon present a new set of obstacles to them reaching their land. 

The council head added that settlers also stole ladders, tools and mattresses belonging to farmers, while trees belonging to other residents were cut down, and the army prevented the families from reaching their lands and assessing the damage. 

Hafeth Saleh, local council head of the Asira al-Qibliya village, southwest of Nablus, told MEE that the village has witnessed a significant rise in settler attacks recently, targeting Palestinian homes and property, as well as razing and taking over village land. 

"We were in the midst of implementing a land rehabilitation project on about 50 dunums of village land, which are in Area B near the settlement of Yitzhar, but the Israeli army blocked us from completing it and prevented us from paving agricultural roads,” Saleh said.

“We were also prevented from hooking up electricity to the land.” 

Olive trees cut down in the West Bank
Israeli soldiers walk past cut-down olive trees on lands belonging to Palestinians from al-Sawiyah village south of Nablus city in the occupied West Bank, on 2 May 2020 (AFP)

He explained that the illegal settlement of Yitzhar sits on 2,500 dunams of confiscated Palestinian agricultural land from Asira al-Qibliya. Yitzhar besieges the village, he added, and its settlers carry out daily attacks against residents of the area.

“They say that the annexation plan has been frozen, but we see this plan proceeding in full swing every day with the seizure of more land and the establishment of more [settler] outposts,” said Saleh.

Defending farmers

Against the backdrop of increased settler attacks, there have been renewed Palestinian popular campaigns to support farmers who are most at risk during the olive season.

One such campaign, and the oldest of them, is the Aounah campaign, which was established in 1986 under the slogan “we protect our land and support our farmers” with the aim of helping farmers harvest their crops and plant olive trees 

Aghsan Barghouti, media coordinator at the Ramallah-based Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC), which organises the campaign, told MEE that it is carried out annually with the participation of tens of solidarity activists from different countries around the world, particularly from social movements in Europe and Latin America, and in coordination with local Palestinian volunteer groups and universities.

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“The main goal of the campaign is to revive the values of aiding farmers and protecting the land, and providing social incubation for farmers,” said Barghouti. 

She explained that the campaign focuses on working in areas that are consistently targeted and are seen as hotspots, in an effort to reduce the intensity of the attacks and the isolation of the farmers. 

While many international solidarity activists usually come from abroad to protect farmers during the olive harvest season, she said, the outbreak of Covid-19 and restrictions on travel hindered the process this year, and the campaign relied mainly on local participation. 

"Farmers need permanent support in the face of the daily attacks of settlers. The corona epidemic has increased the burden on farmers due to the damage caused to marketing and production in the agricultural sector,” said Barghouti.

"Despite the threats and dangers we face, we continued our work with the support of Palestinian farmers.”

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