Olive harvest marked by access and protection concerns

Published as part of

The 2017 olive harvest season, which lasted roughly from mid-September to mid-November, was reported to have proceeded relatively smoothly. However, an increase in incidents of settler violence, including theft of and damage to olive trees, and restrictions on access to olive groves behind the Barrier and near Israeli settlements, continue to pose challenges for Palestinian farmers.

Palestinian farmers picking ollives in land near Alon Moreh settlement requiring access coordination, Azmut village, October 31, 2017. © Photo by OCHA

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 per cent 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 unskilled labourers and more than 15 per cent 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.[1] This year’s yield is projected to be 19,000-20,000 MT (metric tons) of oil – higher than the 16,000 MT in 2016, but lower than the 21,000 MT in 2015 and the 24,000 MT in 2014 – and is worth between $114 million and $120 million.

Increase in settler violence and damage to olive trees

Olive-based livelihoods in many areas of the West Bank are undermined by Israeli settlers who uproot and vandalize olive trees, and by intimidation and the physical assault of farmers during the harvest itself. Consequently, a protective presence is provided in certain parts of the West Bank under the coordination of the Protection cluster.

During this olive season (mid-September to mid-November) the number of Palestinian-owned olive trees vandalized by Israeli settlers more than doubled: 5,582 trees were damaged compared with 1,652 during the 2016 season. The majority of incidents were reported in Bethlehem governorate (around 2,200 trees), especially in al Khader village, followed by Nablus district. Palestinian farmers reported that when they visited their land, after being granted approval, they found that the produce of some 3,200 olive trees had been harvested and stolen. 

Overall, after a decline in recent years, settler-related violence rose in 2017. There were 156 incidents that resulted in Palestinian casualties or damage to Palestinian property by the end of November compared with 107 in all of 2016. This increase coincides with a significant rise in Palestinian attacks against Israelis during this period. Concerns persist about the holding of violent settlers accountable.

The ‘Prior Coordination’ and Permit Systems

The presence of settlements restricts access to Palestinian land for cultivation purposes. Approximately 90 Palestinian communities own land within or in the vicinity of 56 Israeli settlements and settlement outposts. Farmers can only access their land by means of ‘prior coordination’ with the Israeli authorities. Access is generally only permitted for a limited number of days during the harvest and ploughing seasons. This system was in force during this year’s olive harvest but, as in previous years, many Palestinian farmers complained that the period of time allocated was insufficient, or that the Israeli army did not arrive at the designated time, leaving farmers insecure and vulnerable to attacks by settlers.

Palestinian farmers also require special permits or prior coordination to access farming land designated as ‘closed’ between the Barrier and the Green Line. If granted approval, farmers have to cross designated Barrier gates or checkpoints to reach the closed area.

During this year’s olive harvest, 76 gates [2] were designated for agricultural access, down from 84 last year. Of these, 54 only open during the few weeks of the olive harvest, and only for a limited period of time on those days, and are closed for the remainder of the year. An additional 10 gates are considered ‘weekly’ in that they open for some day(s) of the week throughout the year in addition to the olive season. Only 12 gates along the completed 465 kilometres of the Barrier open daily, although this is an increase over the nine gates open on a daily basis in recent years. Of the 76 gates, 56 require access permits and 20 operate via prior coordination.

Olive oil yield in West Bank in metric tonnes

In the northern West Bank (Jenin, Tulkarm, Qalqiliya and Salfit governorates) where the majority of Barrier gates (47) and the only crossings which open on a daily basis are located, the approval rate for permit applications fell slightly from 58 per cent in 2016 to 55 per cent this olive harvest, for a total of 12,582 permits granted. However, over 10,700 applications by farmers for this olive harvest were rejected or still pending by the end of the olive harvest.

In Ramallah governorate only 10 gates operated, all seasonal, compared with 18 last year. Approval for permits fell to 59 per cent versus 79 per cent in 2016 and 2015: there were 657 approvals from 1,113 applicants. In Jerusalem governorate, nine of the 13 gates operate via prior coordination. A total of 1,517 people applied for coordination to access their land behind the Barrier, up from 1,368 in 2016 and 1,350 in 2015. For the four gates that require permits, 67 people applied, of whom 59 received approval.

In the Ramallah and Jerusalem districts, farmers again complained about the lack of midday gate openings; no access on Fridays and Saturdays when they could dedicate more time to harvesting the olives; and gates placed too far from the land they wanted to access, particularly as the entry of tractors is not generally approved. Most landowners reported that olive trees and land behind the Barrier were in poor condition due to the lack of year-round access, and that the lengthy and cumbersome permit and prior coordination system discouraged applicants.

In Bethlehem governorate, the three gates are seasonal and operate via prior coordination. The Wad Dahshish gate did not open in the 2016 olive harvest because the 160 landowners refused to provide ownership documents as a requirement to access their land behind the Barrier. This year, only 15 applied and they succeeded in accessing their land with prior coordination without providing ownership documents. In Hebron governorate, six gates require permits and were opened for three weeks from 16 October to 23 November: 537 out of 663 (81 per cent) of permit applications were approved.

Impact of access restrictions on olive productivity

Access restrictions to land behind the Barrier and in the vicinity of settlements impede essential year-round agricultural activities such as ploughing, pruning, fertilizing, and pest and weed management. As a result, there is an adverse impact on olive productivity and value. Data collected by OCHA over the last four years in the northern West Bank show that the yield of olive trees in the area between the Barrier and the Green Line has reduced by approximately 55-65 per cent in comparison with equivalent trees in areas which can be accessed all year round. [3]

Preventive measures by international humanitarian organizations

For the sixth successive year, the Protection cluster, via the Settler Violence Core Group (SVCG) chaired by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and Premiere Urgence Internationale, has coordinated the deployment of a protective presence to support Palestinian farmers and their families during the olive harvest. This year, SVCG members identified 70 locations across the West Bank most affected or at risk of settler violence. The SVCG coordinated coverage of these locations by 19 organizations, including coordination of a protective presence during the olive harvest; the monitoring and documentation of incidents of settler violence; information and monitoring tools for volunteers; and ensuring the referral of cases for protection responses, including legal aid and a psycho-social response.

Accountability for settler violence

The prevalence of Israeli settler violence, particularly the vandalism of olive trees, is closely linked to inadequate law enforcement by the Israeli authorities. During the 2013- 2015 olive harvests, the Israeli organization Yesh Din documented a total of 53 harvest-related offenses: 10 of crop theft, 25 vandalism of trees and 18 of harvest disruption. Of these, 26 complaints were filed with the Israeli police but only one resulted in an indictment. In 18 cases, the investigation was closed without an indictment, the majority (15) on the grounds of “offender unknown.”[4] In total, of 289 cases of ideologically motivated offenses tracked by Yesh Din between 2013 and 2016, only 20 led to the indictment of offenders.[5]

* Protection cluster has contributed to this article

[1] PALTRADE, The State of Palestine National Export Strategy: Olive Oil, Sector Export Strategy 2014-2018, pp. 5-9. In a typical year, approximately 75 per cent of olive oil is absorbed by the domestic market, 14 per cent is exported to Arab markets and eight per cent is exported to Israel.

[2] This figure excludes Barrier checkpoints which are not used to access agricultural land but by residents of the “Seam Zone” to reach workplaces and essential services in the rest of the West Bank.

[3] For further details on the methodology used for data collection, see here.

[4] Five cases are still being investigated; two cases involved incidents documented by a different organization and Yesh Din has not been informed of their status. Yesh Din, Disruptions to the Olive Harvest in the West Bank, November 2016. According to Yesh Din, over 96 per cent of complaints filed with the Israeli police between 2005 and 2014 regarding deliberate damage to Palestinian-owned trees by Israeli settlers, and followed up by the organization, were closed without an indictment

[5] “This failure manifests in the incapacity of police investigators to locate offenders or collect evidence in order to put suspects on trial.” Yesh Din Data sheet: Law enforcement on Israeli civilians suspected of harming Palestinians and their property. March 2017.