Olive trees perform a crucial historical and cultural role in the Palestinian heritage and national identity. This strong identification between the olive tree and the Palestinian people is not only a reflection of the olive's unique economic and cultural status in this region but also an act of resistance to Israel's occupation.
The tragic story constructed around the olive has made this tree, more than ever before, the symbol and the embodiment of Palestinian nationality – and, perhaps more importantly, into a manifestation of Palestinian resistance to Israel's occupation.
For thousands of years, the olive tree has been an integral part of the Palestinian landscape and Palestine has some of the world's oldest olive trees, dating back to 5,000 and 4,000 years.
The olive harvest season in Palestine bears a sociocultural meaning where families come together to harvest their olives remembering their ancestors who protected the same trees several years ago.
Olive trees paint the ancient landscape of Palestine from the north to the south and from the east to the west. At the time of harvest, roughly mid-October to the beginning of November, families take to the trees and begin their yearly collection rituals.
During the peak of this season, visitors see hundreds gathered in the olive groves with buckets, tarps, donkeys and pick-up trucks. Up in the trees, some harvesters use plastic combs to drop olives onto tarps below, while others may beat the branches with sticks to drop the precious fruits.
Once on the ground, the olives are tossed around in a metal pan in order to separate leaf and fruit, while others may use leaf blowers to accomplish this task. Yet no matter how the harvest is accomplished, one thing is definite: The sacred relationship Palestinians have with these trees. They serve to remind Palestinians of the deep ties they have with their land, as well as their strength and resilience when such a precious commodity and cultural symbol is under attack.
The olive harvest season is a celebrated time for the Palestinians, much as other countries that take pride and joy during their harvest times.
The Israeli military and the settlers who operate under their protection altered this season from a joyful occasion to a season of terror and harm changing this season that was once safe and joyful to a stark reminder of the reality of the occupation.
"If the olive trees knew the hands that planted them, their oil would become tears," Mahmoud Darwish once said.
While the olive sector significantly contributes to economic security and generates income and employment, because of the occupation, numerous obstacles prevent this sector from realizing its full potential.
A lack of adequate resources and ineffective sectoral management coupled with environmental factors, poor production and quality practices have caused stagnation in the development of the sector.
Israel, which has occupied the West Bank since 1967, refrains from actions that restrict Palestinian farmers from access to their land and means of livelihoods.
Under international humanitarian law and international human rights law, Israel, as an occupying power, must ensure public order and safety and protect the civilian population in the territory under its control. In reality, since the occupation of 1967 more than million olive trees were uprooted or burnt by the Israeli government or Israeli settlers, representing a tragic loss of livelihood for Palestinian farmers. Physical attack or harassment against Palestinian olive farmers is also common and often increased during the time of the harvest. This has often contributed to the forced displacement of farmers.
International solidarity activists that sometimes assist with the harvest and seek to protect farmers by their presence have also been victims of attacks. Human rights NGOs have reported that in many cases Israeli army personnel present when the violence took place failed to act to prevent the harassment of or attack on Palestinian farmers or destruction of their property by Israeli settlers, and even reported few cases where soldiers themselves participated in the harassment of harvesters.
During the preceding 52 years of Israeli occupation and as a part of a systematic program, Israel spared no effort to purge the Palestinian Territories from this sacred tree to erase Palestinian history and presence on their Palestinian land.
The Israeli plan
Israeli policy of land expropriation to build Israeli settlements, construct bypass roads, closed military areas, buffer zones, security zones, all throughout the Palestinian territories have cost the Palestinians a substantial number of olive trees destroyed.
The uprooting of the Palestinian olive tree was also a part of the Israeli occupation to contain and reduce the foremost natural resource of the Palestinian land.
Besides, the presence of 56 Israeli settlements near approximately 90 Palestinian communities restricts access to Palestinian land for cultivation purposes. Farmers can only access their land by means of 'prior coordination' with the Israeli authorities and access is permitted only for a limited number of days during the harvest and plowing seasons.
The annual olive harvest is a key economic, social and cultural event for Palestinians. More than 10 million olive trees are cultivated on approximately 86,000 hectares of land, representing 47% of the total cultivated area for agriculture. Olive and olive oil production is concentrated in the north and northwest of the West Bank.
Between 80,000 and 100,000 families are said to rely on olives and olive oil for primary or secondary sources of income and the sector employs large numbers of laborers and more than 15% of working women. The entire olive sub-sector, including olive oil, table olives, pickles and soap, is worth between $160 and $191 million in good years.
During this important season, one can find an eclectic mix of Arab workers, and thousands of volunteers who come from different parts of the country, the United States and Europe to aid in the olive harvest. Many internationals, and Palestinians alike, believe that their presence helps to maintain a peaceful atmosphere.
The olive harvest is a tradition as ancient as Palestine, and paints a poetic narrative of the relationship between the people and their land. Olive trees survive the toughest conditions and grow their roots deeply into the earth, which they call home.
For thousands of years, these trees have stood as a symbol of resistance, firm against all odds of nature; similar to the Palestinians themselves, who are standing firm against all the challenges of occupation and believing in the words of Mahmoud Darwish: "We have on this land what makes life worth living."
* Palestinian author, researcher and freelance journalist; recipient of two prizes from the Palestinian Union of Writers