OPT: Olive harvest low but more peaceful than last year

News and Press Release
Originally published
HAWARA/TEL AVIV, 22 December 2009 (IRIN) - Three hundred olive trees in Shaer's plot near the village of Jit in the West Bank's Nablus region are almost bare: There will be hardly any olives for his family this year, let alone any for sale.

"We will pray for rain and wait," he said. He reckoned this year's crop would be less than a quarter of last year's "and last year it was not good at all".

Ahmed, an olive farmer form the Qalqilayah region, about 30 minutes drive from Tel Aviv, said the meagre crop was not worth harvesting. "I can only hope for the future," he said.

Palestinian olive farmers have been hit by a third consecutive bad or poor harvest. Normally, in this region, you get a good crop one year followed by a smaller yield the next year, but the two-year cycle appears to have been broken - exacerbated by a dry winter in 2008-2009, according to some experts.

A 2008 report on the olive harvest in the West Bank and Gaza by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said some 45 percent of agricultural land in the occupied Palestinian territory was planted with some 10 million olive trees - with the potential to produce 32,000-35,000 tons of olive oil.

About 93 percent of the harvest is used for olive oil, and up to 100,000 families depended on olives for their livelihoods to some extent, it said.

In 2006 an excellent crop produced some 36,000 tons of olive oil; 2007 was a bad crop year in line with the two-year cycle, and the 2008 crop yielded only 23,000 tons. According to experts at the Israeli olive board, the drought caused massive early flower shedding, thus dramatically reducing the yield in 2008 and 2009.

The head of the Palestinian olive oil council, Nabih Ath-Thib, said in Octoberhe expected the total 2009 olive harvest to yield about 5,000 tons of olive oil, far short of the 15,000 tons he said was needed to cover the needs of Palestinians.

Access restrictions

In certain areas the crop was further reduced because of lack of access to groves.

According to the Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR), an Israeli NGO, "despite claims by the Israeli Defense Force [IDF] to the contrary", restrictions of access to the fields, particularly along the "seam" between the security fence and the 1949 Armistice Line, known as the "Green Line", have increased.

However, this year's harvest took place without major incident - an improvement on previous years: The IDF allocated hundreds of soldiers and border police to stop settlers from disrupting the harvest.

The Palestinian and Israeli authorities jointly coordinated Palestinian farmers' access to restricted areas around settlements and behind the West Bank barrier. The International Committee of the Red Cross monitored the harvest but never had to take action as in previous years, for example when gates leading to olive groves remained shut.

This change, according to IDF sources, followed several months of deliberate harassment and the burning of several hundred Palestinian olive trees by settlers in "retaliation" for IDF efforts to evacuate some minor settler outposts in the Samaria hills. In the groves of Jit, several trees have been burned or hacked down by settlers.

Nablus District Coordination Office (DCO) head Lt-Col Fares Attila conducted an extensive survey in 2008 of all Palestinian olive farmers to allow proper allocation of IDF forces during the 2009 harvest. Farmers were notified in advance when their orchards would be guarded to ensure their safety, according to DCO officials.

Rabbi Eric Asherman of RHR told IRIN he was pleased with the IDF initiative, adding, however, that the Palestinians were not given enough time to get the harvest in - only two days.

Testimonies to Israeli NGO B'Tselem and reports from RHR and OCHA indicate the IDF was better prepared this year to protect Palestinian farmers from settler violence during the olive harvest, but did not manage to prevent it completely.