Volunteers' Experiences: The Olive Harvest

Volunteers’ Experiences: The Olive Harvest

The olive harvest began, almost like clockwork, 2 weekends ago. I arrived back from my days off in Bil’in to an empty house as everyone had miraculously disappeared into the olive groves. The 6 volunteers had split into 2 groups and were picking with 2 local farmers. Since then our activities have broadened out over a wide area and we have picked in 8 villages in the region, all of them on land very close to settlements which pose a potential danger from attacks by settlers.

Last Monday for example, G and I were with the family of AR, from Kufr Qaddum, picking on their land far from the village and right opposite the nearby settlement of Qedumim, south of Nablus. All the settlement had been built on his land and that of other farmers from the village. According to Google, Qedumim was founded in 1975 and now has a population of upwards of 4,000. AR had requested help because on the previous Saturday he had gone there with his brother to start the year’s picking to find a crowd of about 100 settlers waiting in a ruined house once used by his father when herding sheep.

When they started throwing stones AR called the army which proved to be a good move because they forced the settlers back. But they also told the 2 Palestinians to go home as well and return on Monday, thus losing 2 days’ valuable harvesting time. So we went with them in a fair amount of trepidation, discussing exactly how we would handle things if there were a return visitation. AR was relieved to see the army there when we arrived and we picked unmolested that day.

In fact we had some interesting encounters on that hillside and they served to break up the very long day of picking under the hot sun.

First came the mayor of Kufr Qaddum making a survey to see how things were going. He is well-known to IWPS as we arrange each year for a group of German olive pickers to go to his village, and they arrived today. He came with 5 or 6 young people in fluorescent vests who were on the EU Cash for Work programme which employs Palestinians in their local communities to work for 60 shekels a day (about 10 pounds) for 2 months. They didn’t stay to work today however. We try to be careful in accepting requests from farmers that we don’t undermine the paid itinerant workers that move around for work at this time of the year.

Our next visitors were the UN, driving up the rough track in their shiny white car. Out got 2 Palestinians who were monitoring the olive harvest, including us in their itinerary for the day. Unfortunately the only parking place was next to the jeep of the soldiers who immediately ordered them out. It was embarrassing to hear the harsh, unpleasant way in which the soldier spoke and argued with them, for they were clearly reluctant to move.

In the end they retreated with the car but came back circuitously on foot to talk with AR about his situation. The UN want to greatly improve their monitoring of incidents this year as last year’s statistics were patchy and inadequate.

Our final visit of the day was a substantial international group from Oxfam, travelling around Palestine and taking part in an Oxfam retreat. They toiled up the hillside in their smart clothes and met us under the trees we were picking, dripping in sweat and filthy with the day’s dust from the trees. I was struck by a dapper woman in an immaculate white cotton top who showed a particular interest in our work and said she was employed by Oxfam UK to work on the issue of settlement goods coming into the European market. She said she had been an MP until the last election when her marginal seat in Milton Keynes fell to the Tories.

Then I knew who she was – a stalwart of the Palestinian cause in the House of Commons whose name was once mentioned to me by my own MP, Louise Ellman (arch-Zionist of the House), as her bête noir – Phyllis Starkey. Well, that was a boost to my weary day!

My other days in the field have been with AS from Hares village, picking on his land right up to the houses of Revava settlement. I wrote about AS last year as he was the man who declaimed Arabic love poetry to us in the middle of one of his most thorny and difficult trees. This year we started in that tree again – but there was no poetry this time! His land is seriously deteriorating under the enforced neglect which the army and settlers impose, for he can only get permission to go to his land once a year to pick the olives. Even then he works under strict limitations: he must begin no earlier than 8am each day and must finish no later than 4.

So when we arrived there at 7.45 he got a telling off for being too early from the soldiers who were waiting for him. This is called “co-ordination” and farmers near settlements cannot go to their lands without it.

“Co-ordination” means that the army dictates the dates, the times, and the numbers and types of people who can help. Often farmers are not allowed long enough to finish the job. And then there is the stress and exasperation experienced by our volunteers a few days ago; they left the house at 6.15am to accompany farmers through a gate to access their land inside the huge settlement of Ariel at 7am (an arrangement “co-ordinated” with the army). But the army never turned up to open the gate so they had to give up after waiting for 2 hours.

One village I visited refuses to apply for “co-ordination” – after all, why should they need a foreign army’s permission to work on their own land? In addition, they so much fear the attacks of notoriously violent settlers from the settlements of Yitzhar and Bracha and the stealing of olives, that they insist on starting to pick early in order to try and pre-empt these criminal acts. IWPS supports this position and some of our volunteers were there helping last week. Now we are no longer needed as a large group of 30 British pickers arrived yesterday to take over.

Tomorrow, we were prepared to go with a farmer through an army controlled agricultural gate in the Wall on the seam-line between the West Bank and Israel. However, it turns out this year that internationals are forbidden by the army to enter the seam-line area and it would therefore disadvantage the farmer if we turned up. Instead they are trying to organize for a group of Israelis to enter the land to help from the Israeli side. What machinations!

To return to AS: he has to pick alone as his wife picks easier trees near to their home and his many sons and daughters all live far away. He revels in telling us that at the age of 65 he is an old man. His land near Revava is covered in horrible thicket, worthy of the Sleeping Beauty castle. It tears and scratches with every move you make, penetrating not only the ground but it climbs around the olive branches too.

Many olives are very small and sparse though others are plump enough.Unwelcome signs of settlers are all over the place: the rolls of barbed wire in amongst the thicket and almost invisible add to its snares; the sprayed trees that are dying; a ladder, newly bought, which was stolen the first time AS took it there and left it overnight, so now he can’t leave any equipment overnight on his land but has to trundle it backwards and forwards each day and walk a considerable distance with the buckets, saws, sacks and ground sheets; there is new human excrement lying on the path; more important, a new clean strip of land, cleared of all its undergrowth, has appeared since last year, marking out the line of a new road in the settlement; and then the battered settee placed under the only tree that gives shade, which the soldiers use all day long as they idly watch us.

An invitation to join us and do something useful clearly did not appeal. I was intrigued therefore to learn a couple of days later that a group of international students studying Arabic at Bir Zeit University who were also helping AS, had persuaded one of the idle soldiers to get off his backside and do some picking.

Portraits of the Olive Harvest

The olive harvest lasts a long time in Salfit and if you come here you can immediately see the reason – the whole governorate (or county) consists of rolling hills covered as far as the eye can see with olive trees.

In spite of the illegal settlements on every other hilltop and the ravages to the traditional lands of the native farmers that those have caused; in spite of the laying waste of so much land for military purposes, for settler highways and all the other infrastructure of the Occupation; in spite of the reduction of olive cultivation due to enforced emigration, especially of younger people who cannot see a future for themselves and their families here; and in spite of the decimation of the whole economy of Palestine by the restrictive controls on imports, exports and on trading links generally by the occupying power; this region and its people are still basically dependent on the subsistence economy of their olive groves.

(For more statistics on the olive subsistence economy I recommend the brief but informative paper by the UN Office for the Co-ordination for Humanitarian Affairs OPT: Olive Harvest Factsheet, Oct. 2011 )

For this reason the harvest goes on longer here than in other areas. For many families who have large numbers of trees it will go on well into November – even December. But this weekend the great 4 day celebration of Eid-al-Adha (the celebration of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son Ishmael or Isaac, and the equivalent culturally of our Christmas) marks the high point of the harvest and from now on we can expect that our own lives and duties will be a little less tied in with it all.

Few families will be picking over this period so for us in the house it is also a time for relaxation, reflection and adjustment. We have had 6 volunteers in the house this last month and, with a new arrival yesterday, we have now reached our maximum number of 7. The team has had its own blows. One volunteer left prematurely and within a week another was deported as soon as she arrived at the airport.

We all worry about that all-important journey across the border, whether it be from Jordan across the Allenby Bridge over the River Jordan or from Israel’s Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. We would all of us be immediately deported if we were even to mention that we were heading for Palestine or had Palestinian friends we want to visit. Each of us has spun our own personal web of lies and half-truths in order to be here at all. I have a strong feeling, for example, that Israeli internal security are on my trail because I am stopped for questioning each time they put my passport through their computers, and it can be a long, hard grilling.

But I digress. Having a relatively large team here has often meant that we can divide our resources and go out to farmers in 3 different villages. The days have been spent picking and the evenings spent on the phones co-ordinating with other groups to ensure an even spread of international volunteers the following day. The month has been intense and demanding.

We are certainly anticipating a quieter weekend now; even our unbreakable commitment to go to demonstrations each Friday has been interrupted as there are none to go to. The air is alive with the Islamic calls to prayer from every mosque (there are 4 in our village) and with sermons and prayers over the loud speakers. Sheep are being trundled in trucks down the street bleating loudly as they are taken to their own sacrifice.

Volunteers who have ventured to the cities recently have reported intense shopping crowds, but now all shops are closed, the village olive presses have fallen silent, even more intense housework than usual has been done, and Palestinians are celebrating with family visits, present-giving and huge feasting.

In this newsletter I want to take a closer look at 3 contrasting experiences of picking olives in the last 2 weeks. I will begin with:

Izbat Abu Adam

Earlier this week A and I answered a call from a farmer from the tiny hamlet of Izbat Abu Adam which stands on a lonely hillside above a settler highway and between the 2 huge industrial settlements of Barqan and Ariel. In fact, the hamlet, which is marked on maps, is reduced to a solitary house which we have often seen as we pass by on another road taking us to our weekly demonstrations.

Each week I look up at this isolated house surrounded by its olive trees and shudder as I see the encroaching factories and clearance of the scarred hillside as Israeli industrial plants prepare for further expansion. How long can this family cling onto their land and their house? We determined last year to make a visit to investigate the circumstances of this family, but I wasn’t involved.

This week however, when we arrived at the top of the hill and looked down on the settler highway I realised that we had stumbled quite by chance across the very family that I had long wanted to meet. You have to approach the land and the house of AA and his wife, W, from the village of Sarta over the hill, bumping the car down a long stony track through the olive groves, and eventually abandoning the car and walking. This is the only approach because the Israelis long ago blocked access via a decent path leading up the hill from the valley. Only settlers zooming by in their fast cars use that valley now – on a highway built on land stolen from AA many years ago.

Likewise, much of his land went as a buffer zone for the industrial area and is now used as a massive dumping ground for industrial waste. In the valley below he has been unable to cross the highway to get to the rest of his land since it was built in the 1990s and a large area of trees was cleared for “security” reasons.

This family’s great misfortune is to live in a house in Area C of the West Bank. The carve-up of the territory into Areas A, B and C was perpetrated under the 2nd Oslo Accord of 1995 and thereby legitimated by those countries that signed up to that charade. Some saw what it would lead to at the time but western politicians hailed it as a great step towards peace. It was nothing of the sort – only a terrible trap which no-one can see a way out of.

The 5 years set by the Accords for the end of the occupation and the establishment of a free Palestinian state came and went, and it is hard to see that they will ever come back. For Israel the divisions were a pretext to solidify and entrench its takeover – to claim all of the 63 % of Area C as its own and to isolate, harass and deprive of services the 150,000 Palestinians who live there.

The Accords confined the influence of the Palestinian Authority to the cities and large towns designated as Area A, ( 13% of the West Bank) into which it was foreseen that those Palestinians who weren’t driven out of the country altogether would gravitate from the insecure countryside. That leaves most of the villages in the insecurity of Area B (24 %) in which Israel maintains security control, controlling all transport routes with checkpoints and roadblocks so that villages can be cut off from each other and from the cities at any time, but divests itself of all responsibility for providing services which are the remit of the PA.Most village built-up areas in Salfit are in Area B but many houses on the edges are in Area C.

So bizarre is this division that the demarcation line may even go through a house or a school playground. The West Bank is chopped up like the holes in Gruyere cheese, the majority of its land already encompassed within the boundaries of Israel with fast highways linking in the settlements directly, and the rest is left in extreme insecurity at the mercy of Israeli colonialist policy and artificially propped up with international aid (which itself is manipulated to help keep in power a defunct and corrupt regime hated by most Palestinians.)

AA and his wife, in their lonely Area C house, are in their 60s and he walks only with a stick. For this reason he couldn’t help with the harvest himself and for this reason he finds access to his home down a steep rough hillside very difficult. He was born in this house – or rather, not in this house but next door in a large cave now used as a hen house. His parents later built the house that he now lives in.

In 1995 he was approached by the Israeli land agent to sell his land to the state. He refused and was subsequently not only ordered to demolish a newer section he had built onto the original house, but he was also shot in the head. He demolished this new extension with the same hands that had built it but he still refused to move.

And here he is today, with his wife and 4 of their younger sons, still clinging on. We talked to them for a long time – and then we fell into the inevitable trap: a sympathetic listening ear is often no doubt mistaken for a perceived ability to help. No amount of sympathy could enable us to wave that magic wand they would so dearly like and get the permission to restore the house for their old age and the future of their sons. We have no power whatsoever to reverse entrenched Israeli policy, however inhuman. Only the United States has that power, and they will not use it.

Our hosts are very proud of their large garden and, while A was absorbed in cuddling their charming kitten, I was taken a tour of the garden. It has an extensive variety of fruits and vegetables and to a large extent they are self-sufficient in their simple life-style, even to the extent of growing the essential tobacco AA needs to roll his cigarettes. I’ve never seen tobacco growing before.

I had reason to be very grateful to AA and his wife. For a start, we had our traditional olive harvest “brunch” sitting on chairs in a cool room rather than on the bare stony earth eating food off the ground which I find really difficult to do these days. It was, as always, delicious, but it left me nodding off. He noticed this and when we left to go back to pick he persuaded me to lie down on the mattresses in the living room where they all left me to sleep. I was eventually wakened by a cockerel and hens scratching past the open door and wandering in for a few pecks of the scattered brunch crumbs.

In the afternoon we were able for the first time to communicate properly with our hosts because a nephew arrived who had a degree in archeology and could therefore speak English. It was through him that we learned their story. N, the nephew, did not come to the hillside in olive picking gear, but armed only with an elegant shisha-pipe (the hookah of Alice-in-Wonderland) and all its gear for smoking.

Later he whisked us off to another world about a mile away. In the local village N owns a coffee-shop. But it is no ordinary coffee shop of the sort we are familiar with in Deir Istiya where men gather in a small dark space playing cards round a few basic tables and drinking the night away with tiny cups of strong sweet coffee.

No, this coffee shop is the only one in town, having caused the closure of previously existing ones that couldn’t compete. It is housed in the oldest building in town and there is a plaque on the wall commemorating the restoration of this 1695 mansion by the Swedish International Development Co-operation Agency. It’s a large 3 story stone edifice which would have been a very grand house in its day. It’s now extremely comfortably kitted out as several rooms and spaces with easy chairs and bamboo curtains with open terraces from which we watched a beautiful sunset.

Soft Arabic music provided a background and a large- screen TV on the wall featuring the sports channel was relaying a video of the ever-popular Barcelona team in action. My attempts to promote the Liverpool Reds fall on rather stoney ground in comparison with “Barrr-chelona”! To top it all, we were promptly served, at the instigation of the owner who was very keen to impress, with a wonderful glass of fruit and ice-cream cocktail.

Shisha-smoking and other gastronomical delights followed, and we were still rather indecently high on such luxuries when we arrived back home in our grubby clothes but otherwise fully recovered from the labours of the day.

I will now describe 2 days of olive picking on a grand scale involving large groups of between 60 – 80 people. Both were very well organized but very contrasting.

PARC Action

On Tuesday last week all of our team in the house got up at 4.15am in order to go to an agricultural gate in the perimeter fence surrounding the vast settlement of Ariel, separating the farmers of the “county town” of Salfit from their lands now enclosed by the settlement. The army has given them up to 20 days to pick and each morning they have to be there at 6am with their children, animals, equipment, food and large quantities of water for the day, for the opening of 3 gates in the “security” fence surrounding Ariel.

A group of 3 soldiers eventually rolled up in their jeep at 6.20 to unlock the gates. The sun suddenly rose above the horizon and we were all lit up as, one by one or in small family groups, we slowly streamed through with guns cocked at children, adults and animals alike. All Palestinians have to give in their green ID cards to the soldiers which are then held all day until they are let out of the “security area” (i.e. their own land) again at 4pm. There were 7 internationals accompanying on this occasion and we were left till last to pass through the barrier and then asked for our passports.

As internationals we have no obligation to show soldiers our ID – only the police can demand that and only the police can arrest and charge us (though the army can and do detain). We usually carry only copies of our passports anyway as it is a potentially very serious loss to be without the real thing. This morning the soldiers on duty weren’t very bothered and after a few words explaining our position to them, we passed peacefully to join the farmers.

Once a year B, as the local organiser for PARC (Palestine Agricultural Relief Committees), organizes internationals to accompany the farmers just for one day as a show of solidarity. We have learned from experience in previous years that PARC-organised events are worth supporting. They are clear acts of solidarity with large numbers of farmers whose position is highly threatened, having to pick inside the security fences of settlements.

These events are co-ordinated with the army so there is no problem with our being there, and transport and food are all laid on by the PARC organizer. PARC is the Palestinian partner of several major western aid-donors, including governments and the EU. It supports farmers with research, training, organizational structure, provision of large-scale equipment etc etc. and they organize all kinds of events to support farmers. Our volunteers have travelled to a few of these events and they are always worthwhile. Their Annual Reports, published in Arabic and English, are impressive and very readable books.

Gathering at dawn last Tuesday with a huge crowd of humans and animals was dramatic. There must have been a minimum of 80 people there. Whilst waiting for the gates to open everyone was handed a white PARC T-shirt and cap and the internationals were each allocated to a family. Once through the fence we all spread out over the sides of the valley we entered, touched by the gold halo of the new day’s sun.

It was a beautiful walk to the groves of “my” family, passing some ancient ruins of a whole village as we went. Abu A is an English teacher in a Salfit school and it was his grandfather who had painstakingly over many years built an immaculate system of terracing right up the hillside, planting his trees in well-spaced rows. With his son and 2 other young men, Abu A’s little group formed a strong team of 5 and we worked pretty solidly, though with good breaks for a delicious breakfast, tea, coffee and water to punctuate the long hot day. The highlight for me was the singing of the shebab as they stood in the trees picking high branches. One was tone deaf but it didn’t matter. All sang with gusto for a long time.

When we gathered again at the gates in the security fence in good time for the 4pm dead-line we all agreed it had been a great day, well-organised and efficiently carried out. 7 farmers had been helped but many more saw that we were present and we were told that our presence and support was appreciated. We would all like to go back there but it’s unlikely because this particular event was a symbolic day of solidarity with Salfit farmers and will not be repeated this year.

Qarawat Bani Hassan

Our day with PARC was immediately followed by another day of solidarity, but very different in nature. Again, it is an annual event. In this case, the solidarity event with farmers in the nearby village of Qarawat Bani Hassan was the initiative of the PA (Palestinian Authority): each year the village is descended on by a large variety of local officials from the Salfit governorate, from the Governor downwards through the ranks of army, police, fire-fighters and administration. Some central PA officials were there too, from Ramallah, and of course the press and lots of photographers. Similar events are held every year in other villages on threatened land.

Only 2 of the house team were available to go to this but we made up for that by being the first to congregate in the baladiya (municipal buildings) of Qarawat. We were the only women in this man’s world. After 2 hours being plied with coffee, juice and sweet cakes everyone was ready to set off in a cavalcade of cars through the village to the hillside overlooking the settlement of Qiryat Netafim which has taken much of the village land.

We all descended on one area of trees, picking them clean like a plague of locusts. Again, there was much male singing, this time lead by the brother of our mayor, who is a traditional singing artist and who teaches in Qarawat. In fact he had commandeered his whole class of boys, dressed in uniforms similar to scouts, to keep us all fed and watered during the morning. Although many trees were picked there was also much time spent sitting in the shade smoking, drinking and eating the constant hand-outs of the boys.

Then at mid-day sharp everything was abandoned and we were transported back to the baladiya for a lunch of mussakhan with chicken. Just as quickly, the lunch was over, debris strewn everywhere on tables and the floor, and the large room was suddenly empty. We were transported back to the house free of charge and carrying a small mountain of the vegetarian left-overs. The jamboree was over. I think a great time was had by all – but in all the ballyhoo, only one farmer was helped and he is left with a load of clearing up to do!