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

Record yield reported from 2019 olive harvest

Published as part of

New regulations for Barrier permits may restrict access to land in northern West Bank; improvement in access to land behind the Barrier in Ramallah and Jerusalem areas alongside increase in settler violence

Akkaba, (population 345), is a village in the Tulkarm governorate in the northern West Bank. About 88 per cent of the community’s 2,200 dunums of land is located in the closed area between the Barrier and the Green Line, the “Seam Zone”.  In 2002, following a wave of Palestinian attacks, including suicide bombings, Israel began building the Barrier with the stated aim of preventing these attacks. The vast majority of the Barrier’s route is located within the West Bank, isolating Palestinian communities and farming land, and contributing to the fragmentation of the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt).

The International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion

In 2004, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued an Advisory Opinion on the Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. The ICJ stated that the sections of the Barrier route which run inside the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, together with the associated gate and permit regime, violated Israel’s obligations under international law. The ICJ called on Israel to cease construction of the Barrier ‘including in and around East Jerusalem’; dismantle the sections already completed; and ‘repeal or render ineffective forthwith all legislative and regulatory acts relating thereto’, referring to the gate and permit system.[1]

Tayseer Amarneh owns 230 dunums of land in Akkaba, including 150 planted with 700 olive trees. There are over 10 million olive trees in the West Bank, on which between 80,000 to 100,000 families rely for their  income, including large numbers of unskilled laborers and more than 15 per cent of working women.[2] According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the olive oil yield for the 2019 harvest, which took place between September and November, is estimated to be 27,000 tons, including some 4,200 tons of oil in Gaza: this represents an over 80 per cent increase compared to 2018.[3] This year’s exceptionally high yield is due to alternate fruit-bearing “on and off seasons”, as well as a significant decline in infestation by the olive leaf gall midge, which devastated last year’s harvest in the northern West Bank.[4]

The permit system

The majority of Tayseer’s land is located is in the closed area between the Barrier and the Green Line. To access this land, farmers like Tayseer must obtain a special permit from the Israeli authorities, a requirement which also applies to family members and agricultural workers.[5] Given the labour-intensive nature of the olive harvest, Tayseer always applies for additional permits for family members. According to the Israeli authorities, “recognizing the uniqueness and significance of the olive harvest season, agricultural employment permits beyond the set quota can be requested for members of the farmer’s family.”[6]

Recent years have witnessed a significant decline in the allocation of Barrier permits. According to official data obtained by the Israeli organization HaMoked, the approval rate for permits for landowners fell from 76 per cent of applications in 2014 to 28 per cent in 2018 (up to 25 November). Permits issued to agricultural workers declined from 70 per cent to 50 per cent of applications in the same period.[7]

In the northern West Bank (Jenin, Tulkarm, Qalqiliya and Salfit governorates), as monitored by OCHA, the approval rate for permit applications overall for 2019 was 56 per cent, with about 10,000 applicants approved and 8,000 rejected. This is an increase on the 45 per cent approval rate for permits in 2018, and similar to the 55 per cent approved in 2017. However, in 2019 there were fewer applications for permits compared to recent years; 18,439, down from 20,377 in 2018 and 22,968 in 2017 .

The majority of Barrier gates only open during the olive harvest

If permits are granted, land in the closed area can only be accessed through designated Barrier gates or checkpoints, that are controlled by Israeli soldiers, and only open according to a certain schedule. Most of these are only open during the olive harvest period and only for a limited amount of time on those days, prohibiting year-round access. During the 2019 olive harvest, 74 gates and five checkpoints were designated for agricultural access, of which only 11 open daily, ten open for some day(s) of the week and during the olive season; and the majority, 53, only open during the olive season.  Of the 74 gates, 49 require access permits and 25 operate through verbal approval from the Israeli authorities, referred to as ‘prior coordination”.

Fewer Barrier permits approved in Akkaba; gate opening delayed.

According to Tayseer, “overall, in Akkaba in 2019, the approval rate for permit was only half compared to 2018. We only got 90 permits this year, and most of these were only valid for three months. My nine family members usually get permits, but this year we only received three. I have a two-year permit, but it expires in January. My wife has a one year-permit, which also expired recently. Only one of my sons got a permit, but that was as an agricultural worker and only for a period of three months, which has also expired. Otherwise, I received no permits this year for agricultural workers.”

Tayseer also grows tobacco crops on his land located behind the Barrier. “My revenue from tobacco has decreased from NIS 120,000 in 2015 to only NIS 11,000 in 2019. I used to plant 35 dunums of tobacco when I managed to get permits for all my family members, in addition to five workers. However, as the permits granted have been going down each year since 2015, I’ve been planting fewer dunums, and only three dunums in 2019, because I couldn’t get a permit for any worker this year.”

Tayseer accesses his land through the Akkaba gate which open three days weekly, for an average 15 minutes per opening. “This year I estimate that I lost around 2,000 kilogrammes of olives, worth about NIS 12,000, due to the gate not opening until the second half of October. I couldn’t get to my land until then. But there are dozens of breaches in the Barrier in Tulkarm and Jenin, where you can cross undetected, so people went and took my olives while I sat at home waiting for the gate to open.”

Barrier access in the middle and southern West Bank

In the Ramallah governorate, where 12 gates operate, all of them seasonal, procedures were much more relaxed than in the northern West Bank. In practice, this meant that all farmers who applied for permits or coordination to cross the agricultural gates during the permitted hours were allowed access to their land behind the Barrier, amounting to approximately 1,500 farmers. In the Jerusalem governorate, where 12 gates operate, all but three of them seasonal, over 1,700 farmers applied and were potentially allowed to cross the Barrier.

In the Bethlehem governorate, where the three Barrier gates are seasonal and operate on the ‘prior coordination’ system, some 755 farmers crossed. This is an increase compared to the 565 recorded in 2018, although the gates only opened for 12 days compared to 18 days in 2018.  In the Hebron district, there are six gates, all seasonal and all require permits for farmers to pass, with applicants required to provide ownership documents, which many farmers do not possess. The number of permits granted in 2019 is not available.

Impact of access restrictions on olive productivity

The limited allocation of permits, combined with the restricted number and opening times of the Barrier gates, impedes 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. The additional restrictions on access involved with the new regulations is expected to further diminish the productivity of crops located behind the Barrier.

Since 2011, OCHA has been monitoring the productivity of a representative number of farmers in the northern West Bank. Such data show that the yield of olive trees in the area between the Barrier and the Green Line has reduced by approximately 60 per cent in comparison with equivalent trees in areas accessible all year round.[8]

In the case of Tayseer, this involves a sample of 16 trees on each side of the Barrier. In 2019, his 16 trees on the ‘Palestinian’ side, where he has unrestricted access for ploughing, pruning, fertilizing and pest and weed management produced 776 kg of olives. By contrast, his trees on the ‘Israeli’ side of the Barrier, produced only 413 kg, about half of that amount.

New regulations may undermine the right of land-owners to access their land

New standing regulations issued by the Israeli authorities in September 2019, may further restrict access to land in the closed area. Previous regulations stated that the reason for issuing Barrier permits is to “preserve a connection to the land”, subject only to security considerations. By contrast, the new regulations state that the purpose is “to enable agricultural cultivation according to agricultural need, based on the size of the plot and the type of crops, while preserving a connection to the land.”

This implies that from now on Palestinian landowners, their family members and agricultural workers, will be able to visit their land solely for cultivation. Applicants must have a minimum size of 330 square meters of land per person, which is calculated by dividing the size of each plot by the total number of heirs of the registered owner, regardless of who actually owns or cultivates the land.

In addition, under the previous regulations, once a permit was granted, the holder’s access to the land was unlimited, subject only to the opening hours of the gates. The new regulations set a limit to the number of days that farmers can access their land a year, based on the size of the plot and the nature of the crop. The limit for farmers with olive groves is set at 40 days a year; 50 days for figs; and 220 days for tomatoes and strawberries. The position of the Palestinian District Coordination and Liaison Offices (DCLs) is to refuse to cooperate with the new regulations, and some farmers are also refusing to accept these new limited-entry permits.

In November, HaMoked filed a request with the High Court to issue an interim injunction to prevent the new regulations coming into force. The Court did not issue the injunction, but is expected to hear HaMoked’s petition challenging the legality of the new regulations in the coming months.

Access to Palestinian land near settlements

The presence of settlements also restricts access to Palestinian land for cultivation purposes. Dozens of Palestinian communities own land within, or in the vicinity of, Israeli settlements and settlement outposts. Palestinian farmers can only access this land through a ‘prior coordination’ arrangement with the Israeli authorities, with access generally only permitted for a limited number of days during the harvest and ploughing seasons.[9]

This system was in force again during the 2019 olive harvest. In the northern West Bank, some 70 locations required such ‘prior coordination’ in 2019, an increase over the 56 recorded in 2018. In the Ramallah area, too, new plots of private Palestinian land near settlements were added to the areas in need of ‘prior coordination’, which had not been considered problematic previously. There are numerous reports of Palestinian groves being harvested by Israeli settlers, particularly in areas where Palestinian access is restricted for most of the year.

Increase in settler violence and in damage to olive trees

Olive-based livelihoods in many areas of the West Bank are undermined by Israeli settlers uprooting and vandalizing olive trees, and by intimidation and the physical assault of farmers during the harvest season. During the 2019 olive season (mid-September until mid-November), OCHA recorded a total of 60 incidents where Israeli settlers or perpetrators believed to be settlers, injured Palestinian farmers or attacked their trees or olive produce.[10] These incidents led to ten Palestinian injuries, including two children, as well as damage to over 2,700 trees and the theft of approximately 160 tons of produce. Over half of the vandalized trees (1,548) were in the Nablus governorate. Likewise, some 45 per cent (27) of the incidents were reported in the Nablus governorate, the majority in areas surrounding the settlement of Yitzhar and its adjacent outposts, consistent with the trend in settler violence over the last decade.

As illustrated in the chart below, the majority of trees vandalized during the last four years (2016-2019) were targeted outside of the olive harvest season.

Trees vandalized by Israeli settlers or perpetrators believed to be settlers

Settler attacks have been on the rise since 2016. In 2019, OCHA documented 342 incidents attributed to Israeli settlers resulting in Palestinian casualties (76 incidents) or in damage to Palestinian property (266 incidents). This represents an increase of 16 per cent compared with 2018, and of over 100 per cent compare to 2017. These incidents led to two Palestinian fatalities and 113 Palestinian injuries, including 22 children.

Protection concerns during the Olive Harvest

In 2019, for the ninth year in a row, the Protection Cluster, led by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, coordinated the deployment of a protective presence to support Palestinian farmers and their families during the olive harvest. Ahead of the olive harvest season, 90 areas were identified throughout the West Bank, where settler violence has been recurrent. With the participation of 16 organizations, the Protection Cluster coordinated the monitoring and documentation of settler violence; the referral of cases for protection responses, including legal and psycho-social services, among other responses; and the provision of material assistance, in coordination with food security cluster partners.

In particular, the Protection Cluster focused on areas identified as hotspots for settler violence, as well as areas in the closed area between the Barrier and the Green Line, the “Seam Zone”.  The cluster identified 31 barrier gates where access issues were more acute, due to the Israeli permit regime. Protection partners provided legal aid, monitoring and documentation, and a protective presence for Palestinians facing access restrictions to their lands behind the Barrier.

[1] ICJ Advisory Opinion of 9 July 2004, para. 141. The full text can be found here

[2] PALTRADE, The State of Palestine National Export Strategy: Olive Oil Sector Export Strategy 2014 – 2018. According to PALTRADE, the entire olive sub-sector, including olive oil, table olives, pickles and soap, is worth between $160 and $191 million in good years.

[3] Ministry of Agriculture (MoA). The needs of the domestic market of olive oil are estimated at 15 thousand tons annually. There are also exports to the United States, which receives about 700 tons annually; EU countries; Arab Gulf countries, including Kuwait and Saudi Arabia; and Jordan.

[4] OCHA Humanitarian Bulletin, August 2018; Infestation expected to affect olive harvest in the West Bank

[5] In certain areas, Palestinians can access the closed area by means of prior approval from the Israeli authorities, referred to as ‘prior coordination’.

[6] Unofficial translation from fifth Standing Order. According to a communication from the Civil Administration in 2019, “the Civil Administration understands the importance of the olive harvest season among Palestinian residents and is therefore preparing ahead of time - from coordinating the access of harvesters to their olive groves and securing them to providing assistance … by giving out modern technological equipment for oil production tools. We promise to make every effort to strengthen the agricultural sector and support the local economy.”

[7] OCHA humanitarian Bulletin, February 2019; Fewer permits granted to access land behind Barrier.

[8] For further details on the methodology used for data collection see: OCHA Humanitarian Bulletin, February 2014, Impact of the Barrier on Agricultural Productivity in the Northern West Bank.

[9] According to the Israeli authorities, these “are ‘friction points’ where violent incidents have occurred in the past. There is also the risk of hostile terrorist groups taking advantage of the harvest, and the increased traffic of Palestinian farmers and their families to the plots adjacent to Israeli communities, to perpetrate terrorist acts under cover of the harvest, including entry into said communities and committing terror attacks therein.” In the 2019 olive harvest the military commander signed 111 declarations for closed military zones, the majority where Palestinians could access “in the pre-coordinated time so the harvest can be conducted with the aid of an IDF security force.” A minority applied to Israelis, “where there is concern, based on reliable information that Israelis are expected to disrupt the work of the Palestinian olive pickers.” State response to Yesh Din petition to Israeli High Court, 11 November 2019.

[10] These figures exclude incidents involving threat, intimidation, trespass or access restrictions imposed by Israeli settlers which did not result in casualties or damage. Although such incidents are believed to be more frequent, they are difficult to monitor systematically.