Four hundred meters northwest of the community of Shiloh is a small grove of olives stretching nearly a hectare (2.2 acres) along Route 60. The trees are weighed down with produce, and with the olive harvest season ending, it is time to pick it.
Gilad Sloma, a broad-shouldered, red-bearded employee of Tura Winery, shows us several large woven polypropylene bags printed with Arabic, the kind used to haul heavy industrial loads. Sloma explains that on November 1, some Arabs came and attempted to harvest the olives, causing more than NIS 10,000 in damage to the trees before running off.
Sixty kilometers to the south, near the Jewish community of Alon Shvut, is a row of olive saplings. The land is dry, with tufts of grass and weeds poking up.
They were planted in February by a group of foreign volunteers with the YMCA Joint Advocacy Initiative.
The young trees came prepacked in 3.8-liter black plastic bags, and were planted around various communities in Gush Etzion south of Jerusalem. Residents and NGOs like Women in Green and Regavim argue they are part of a larger struggle over land in the West Bank.
The media’s take on this issue is usually structured upon a narrative of Palestinians having their olive trees uprooted by Jews. Russia Today reports that “Palestinian olive groves are routinely attacked in territories under Israeli control.” Iran’s Press TV screams “Israelis destroy 4,000 olive trees in the West Bank in 2013.” One Israeli media outlet claims that the olive harvest “could have been among the most beautiful and pastoral around, were it not for the Israelis running amok.” Edo Konrad at +972 Magazine compares the destruction to an act of terror, similar to gangs attacking Jewish businesses in New York or London.
For her part, Sonja Karkar of the Melbourne-based Women for Palestine wonders how Jews could destroy trees contrary to the laws of Torah, as it is “the land the Jews claim God gave them, and the trees they are supposed to preserve.”
WITH THE olive harvest wrapping up for 2013, the NGO Yesh Din published a document and map showing that of 211 investigations into olive “vandalization” between 2005 and 2012, only four indictments had been issued. The report showed an image of a tree cut off at the trunk and argued that “most of the Palestinian residents of the West Bank rely on agriculture as a significant source of income.”
Haaretz also recently published a “secret document” that detailed 16 attacks in September and October. The list described damage done to 1,364 trees, of which 203 were said to be “chopped down” and 927 “burned.” It is from lists such as these that estimates of the number of trees destroyed in the West Bank are drawn.
But not everyone agrees that these trees are permanently damaged. Many of the Jewish residents spoken to across the West Bank who are familiar with the issue argued this is the work of those who deliberately provoke, or Palestinians pruning their own groves, and that most of the trees are not truly harmed.
Fire, for instance, doesn’t necessarily kill trees. A study conducted by researchers at the Royal Botanic Gardens of New South Wales in Australia found that fire did not kill larger trees, but did lead to the death of 80 percent of trees with a diameter of less than 20 mm.
Others point out that the number of trees harmed is minuscule in terms of the total number, and that in fact more are planted every year than are damaged.
TO UNDERSTAND the nature of what is happening to olive trees in the West Bank, some historical context is needed. In 1945, the British Mandate’s Survey of Palestine noted “from a standpoint of planted area, the olive is the principal fruit tree of Palestine,” accounting for almost 60,000 hectares (over 148,000 acres) of planted land, contributing 1% of the world’s olive production. They estimated that about 7,000 to 10,000 tons of oil per year were produced, about half by antiquated animal-driven methods.
(Olive oil production is cyclical, so production rates can vary greatly. One study by researchers at the Gilat Research Center in the Negev found trees varying production from 2,000 to 12,000 olives per tree.) After 1948, when the West Bank was run by Jordan, according to documents of the Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Olive Oil Council, production declined slightly to 4,800 tons in 1966, but the number of hectares planted with olive trees rose to 76,927 in 1964. It increased steadily under Israeli control, from 96,000 hectares in 1982 to 107,963 in 2006.
This is apparently in spite of the fact that Oxfam and other NGOs estimate 800,000 trees were uprooted by Israeli authorities. Olive oil production also increased, to around 25,000 tons a year from around 10 million trees in the West Bank.
The World Bank found that around 100,000 Palestinians “depend to some extent upon the olive harvest for their livelihoods” while “export has never been a focus for the Palestinian oil producers and the majority of the production is for the local market.” Between 2,000 and 5,000 tons are exported, but the World Bank thinks that with investment in modern equipment, this could be increased. However, “if farmers are not guaranteed access to their fields and kept safe from settler attacks, they will not be able to produce the necessary olives.”
Since the 1990s, as the Jewish population in the West Bank burgeoned from around 100,000 to 200,000, the olive tree became increasingly seen as a symbol of the conflict. Shaul E. Cohen, now a professor at the University of Oregon, pioneered the study in his 1993 book The Politics of Planting, in which he argued that “the practice of planting capitalizes on the protection to which the trees and other forms of land use are afforded under Ottoman and ensuing legal systems [in the West Bank].” The Ottoman law encouraged planting of trees on abandoned state land, which conferred some rights to those who continuously harvested them.
Cohen relates a conflict from 1989, where Palestinians from the village of Katanna sought to return to harvest olives on land they claimed next to the Green Line. The Israel Lands Authority, which administers state land, uprooted 3,000 olive trees to prevent the villagers from laying claim to the land on which they were planted along the Green Line.
Cohen also notes that maintaining existing orchards and planting new ones was a method of boundary demarcation between Jews and Arabs. “Palestinians are planting trees and plowing fields in areas that recently had been unused, abandoned or neglected,” even though experts “know full well that the olive market is currently glutted.” In this way, the tree, which can live for more than a 1,000 years, has become a symbol – not only of the Holy Land, but of the struggle over it.
Atyaf Alwazir, who wrote a research paper on the subject at American University, argues that the tree is “of great importance for Palestinian culture and identity.”
Emphasizing its religious significance, uprooting the tree represents a “confiscation of memory.”
Alwazir claims that during the first and second intifada, the trees became a security issue for Israel. “There are those who view the trees as the enemy, because stone throwers and gunmen hide behind them.” Beginning in the first intifada, the IDF did uproot trees, estimated at 19,000 by Cohen and up to 100,000 by the Palestine Human Rights Information Center.
The wildly different estimates for the first intifada feed a growing sense that the olive-tree story is heavily influenced by politics. For instance, in 2010, Senussi Bsaikri asserted in Middle East Monitor: “The uprooting of more than 1 million olive trees [since 1987] constitutes an appalling assault on the environment.”
Furthermore, the construction of the security barrier between 2000 and the present is said to cut Palestinians off from their land, and “this constitutes the largest percentage of olive farms, particularly in the northern West Bank.”
The affected area contains about 12.5% of the West Bank; some 60,000 trees were moved to build it and 74 gates allow access to agricultural land behind it – which international organizations do not estimate is a significant portion of the olive farms.
THE STRUGGLE for the land since the 1990s has involved not only the uprooting of trees, but also the work done by NGOs, coexistence and peace groups, and foreign activists, to extend the areas of Palestinian cultivation to create what is termed “facts on the ground” in competition with Jewish residents.
In the last several years, the Palestinian Authority, local authorities and NGOs have ramped up their work.
Al Jazeera’s Dalia Hatuqa noted in October 2012 that “Palestine’s farmers cultivate resistance… Today, a busload of supporters from Ramallah arrived at Al-Lubban ash-Sharqiya… Palestinians from Haifa, Acre and Jaffa tended to the land, removed large rocks and planted seedlings [while] others hailing from countries as far as China were busy clearing weeds.”
Author James Brownsell is more poetic: “They strap olive saplings and water bottles to the back of a donkey, silent under its burden. Former police officers from Sweden, German punks, Australian conservationists, leftist activists from the US, South African priests and a Celtic fringe of Welsh students join Israeli anarchists and Palestinian pacifists. These are the guerrilla gardeners of the occupied West Bank.” According to Brownsell, some 120 activists came in 2010 with the Joint Advocacy Initiative of the East Jerusalem YMCA and planted 8,600 trees.
The JAI’s website is slick and has a streaming band of information describing settler attacks on Palestinians harvesting in the West Bank. For $20, one can sponsor an olive tree. The JIA seeks to replace the “548,000 olive trees uprooted, burned and destroyed” since 2001.
With 350 international sponsors, it hopes to replant 8,000 a year. “So far the campaign has planted more than 80,000 olive trees in hundreds of fields in the West Bank and Gaza, many of which are already bearing fruit.”
The campaign also presents evidence that “settlers from the Israeli settlement of Carmel in the South Hebron Hills have uprooted most of the 400 trees planted by the campaign earlier in 2012.” The website has photos of 30-centimeter-tall “olive trees” dried and dead on the parched soil.
OliveAid, a UK-based charity working in association with the Friends of Bethlehem University, is also planting. “OliveAid’s aim is simply to restore the injustice suffered by the Palestinian people by replanting the olive groves.” From April 2008 to March 2009, they planted 4,500 trees at more than 70 sites in the West Bank. A handy link to Google Earth allows the viewer to see the sites themselves. Most are concentrated south of Bethlehem, creating a ring around Efrat and parts of the Gush Etzion area.
At one site, 100 or so meters northeast of Alon Shvut, Canon Richard Quinlan has donated 100 trees at $38 a tree to Soud Sbeih. At another site near Har Gilo, Canon Seamus Keenan of Our Lady of Ransom Church in Kempston, England, has donated 70 trees to Saed Ahmed al-Ali of Walaja. Photos show the saplings provided are a year old, larger than what JAI’s photos show.
Numerous International organizations are involved in assisting the Palestinian olive industry in the West Bank. “Food security” is the term used by state donors, such as the Netherlands Representative Office in the West Bank, which claims the agricultural sector – which accounts for only 6% of Palestinian GDP – must be addressed to build a viable Palestinian state. The UN Development Program says it has put $26 million into projects to “develop trees and improve the olive harvest.”
From 2003 to 2006, the World Food Program directly purchased Palestinian olive oil to help the local economy. Oxfam helped Palestinians export 970 tons of olive oil in 2011.
The International Committee of the Red Cross claims that even though only 100,000 people depend on the harvest for their income, a high unemployment rate means supplemental income is welcome. Oxfam estimates that the olive oil industry creates three million seasonal workdays, around six weeks of work for those 100,000 people at about $1,000 in income per capita – which makes it unclear how they subsist off it.
In a 2009 interview, Tom Glue of the ICRC economic security program noted that his organization monitors the harvest, “but never had to take action as it did in previous years, for example when gates leading to olive groves remained shut.” He claimed that “thousands of trees were cut down or burned earlier in the year by settlers.”
In his view, newly planted trees take 15 years to mature, and require fertilizing, weeding and pruning every month. To remedy the hardships of the Palestinians, “we will provide 70,000 olive seedlings to farmers who were not permitted to properly maintain their trees or whose trees were uprooted or burnt.”
THE INFORMATION on what takes place during what Palestinians and their supporters increasingly call the “green intifada” of planting is not always clear.
Although the NGOs and international organizations claim the trees are usually donated to replace those being harmed, the overall number of trees reported harmed each year tends to be far lower than the number being planted. Even though reports state 4,000 trees were destroyed in 2013, Palestinian interim prime minister Rami Hamdallah told an olive picking festival last month that 750,000 trees would be planted by the PA to replace them.
Irus Braverman, an associate law professor at the University of Buffalo, who wrote Planted Flags about the conflict over trees in 2009, describes how Rabbis for Human Rights provided saplings to Palestinians, around 25,000 according to her. “But rather than replanting according to the particular agricultural needs of the farmer or the village, Rabbis for Human Rights requires that the Palestinians plant the trees donated by the organization in the ‘right place,’” relates Braverman.
She recalls witnessing an event in 2006 where the village of Burin requested 300 trees, and was told that the trees are “planted either in the areas that are nearest to the settlement, or in the exact location from which the trees were uprooted.”
Often it appears from reports that the planted trees are not tended in the way the ICRC recommended. For instance, Ann Von Hollen of the Pulitzer Center notes that Maher Abu Seba’a planted 240 olive trees, in fact saplings, near Gush Etzion in early 2011. “Five months later, Abu Seba’a and his brother went to the land to irrigate the trees, only to discover that 228 of the olive trees had been destroyed.” Why did Abu Seba’a suddenly decide to plant so close to the Jewish community, and wait five months to return? Jewish farmers point to major differences in planting that have bearing upon what happened: Jews irrigate their farms more and use piped-in water, while Arabs often dig the soil deeper, dumping water from trucks into it.
THE IMAGES of international volunteers planting reveal the degree to which most of the planting is conducted close to Jewish communities – and not clearly in places that were previously cultivated.
Ryan Rodrick Beiler is a documentary photojournalist who has been working in the West Bank for the development NGO Mennonite Central Committee, and has photographed JAI olive planting expeditions.
On one trip in February 2013, he showed international activists helping plant trees in the “Ein al-Ghassis area of El-Khader village,” next to Elazar and Alon Shvut. Dozens of light-skinned men and women, some with keffiyehs flung around their necks, grasped saplings by the stems, dragging them across the landscape to plant them in rows. Later, small plastic boxes or stakes were attached to them to hold the fragile seedlings in place.
Louise Sellau recalls participating on the planting trip with members of Danish group DanChurchAid: “We arrive at the fields where we get shovels and olive trees. The fields belong to three different farmers and their families. From the fields we see an Israeli settlement outpost. It is placed about 100 meters further up the hill. We see caravans which are surrounded by wire fences and manned by Israeli soldiers. Soon this outpost will be transformed into a settlement, a neighborhood with villa houses, playgrounds and supermarkets. A few hours later we are standing and looking over the fields, which now host 400 new olive trees. Now the three farmers and their families have crops to support them. Along the new olive trees are a few old ones – once productive trees, but now burned and destroyed by Israeli settlers.”
Were there ever trees there? The photos don’t show any. The narrative she constructs begs the questions: How does she know settlers destroyed them? And how does she know the “three farmers and their families” will support themselves with olives that will take a decade to bear fruit worth harvesting? Beiler’s photojournalist website provides a clearer insight; he writes that “Israeli settlers activists known as Women in Green have planted trees in the area as a tactic for asserting control of the land.” Here, the contrast is clearly painted as a competition for land – as Cohen detailed in the 1990s – as a way to create boundaries between Jewish land and Arab land. There is no discussion of Arab production, of export, agricultural necessity or even tending the trees after – but rather planting for the sake of planting.
Braverman recounted the same thing in 2005, meeting Jews who noted: “Topographically, the outpost doesn’t have much territory… so this became a conflict zone. We planted [olive] trees there twice already, and in both cases the Arabs uprooted them in the middle of the night.”
THE YESH DIN report on vandalism also illustrates the degree to which the reported attacks are concentrated in several specific areas. About 80% of them occur in an area stretching from Kalkilya to the south of Nablus, near Jewish communities such as Shiloh to the south, Har Bracha and Yitzhar in the center, and Ma’aleh Shomron to the west. Another 20 attacks, or 10%, take place near Gush Etzion between Bethlehem and Hebron. The rest occur in the South Hebron Hills, near Maon and Sussiya.
In contrast, many Jewish residents of the West Bank report that the media ignore vandalism against their orchards. Vered Ben-Saadon of Tura Winery recalled that last year 50 large olive trees were cut down. “We deal with this all the time. We have a large agricultural estate. There is enough land for everyone.” She explained that in the past, groups came from outside and brought Arabs who were not from the area to stir up locals. When they reported the attacks to the police, they were made to feel that “maybe other settlers did this by mistake.”
Ben-Saadon notes that the vandalism and tree killing took place on Shabbat. It will take five to eight years for the trees that were damaged to recover. When we visit the Tura orchard, the stumps of the trees can be seen, grown over with weeds.
An activist from Givat Haroeh named Yehuda Ben- Eli claims that in his research, “I went over all the area and from 2010, in all the claims, we revealed that Jews didn’t do it – Arabs did… There are pictures of them doing it. What they do is take down the branches. After, they claim the settlers do it.”
In his view, the stories about Jewish assaults on olives involve several layers. One is Arabs who prune their own trees, with others then saying the pruning is vandalism. Then there are those who intentionally damage their own trees.
On a tour of the area with Ari Briggs of Regavim, we see the results of Arab pruning, which seem to involve less cutting than in photos of trees reported to be intentionally damaged. However, it is possible the two could be confused. A website illustrating pruning in Spain shows a man chainsawing off numerous large branches of a tree, leaving a tree that would look terribly damaged to an untrained eye.
The claim that Arabs intentionally damage trees or are themselves responsible for large numbers of Jewish- owned trees being destroyed has been reported for several years. In the midst of the harvest this year, Arutz Sheva reported that a fight broke out as Arabs and foreign volunteers sought to enter the Jewish community. Yitzhar put out a statement claiming, “Arabs use the olive harvest to gather information” for terrorist attacks. Binyamin and Samaria Residents’ Councils spokesman Sagi Keisler also says: “Last year, we caught Arabs and left-wing activists redhanded as they cut down olive trees.”
Moreover, in a 2007 incident, Bnei Akiva youth planted 5,000 trees south of Hebron and found them destroyed two days later, which they claimed was at the instigation of left-wing activists.
MARC PROVISOR, who served as security chief for Shiloh, believes that much of the land conflict with neighboring Arab communities is caused by outsiders.
“I had extensive contacts with Arab neighbors. It was great. Even afterwards I had great contacts. I noticed some groups who said, ‘We are being paid to take tractors to your field’ or ‘The Jews cut down our trees,’ and we would ask when. ‘Yesterday’ [they would answer], and yesterday was Shabbat – and they would admit that their own groups did it.”
Several years ago, a group came and planted fields between Shiloh and Qaryut. “All of sudden tractors came into the area, in a place we had been planting forever. I asked what he was doing, and he said he was being paid and he said Americans were paying him, and he pointed to Rabbis for Human Rights. I spoke to the mukhtar [head of the village] and he had all these saplings. He said that these Americans have brought saplings.”
According to Provisor, only politics is behind this.
“After the groups leave, the area dries up and nothing gets done… the plants die.” Even though the olive tree doesn’t need much water or tending, he notes there is a clear difference between “the productive Arab fields that the villagers use, and the ones planted by foreign groups.”
The state is absent from the equation. “The police don’t care as long as they [the activists and Arabs] haven’t done anything. They wait for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories or the army.
Sometimes COGAT will say it is private land and then realize the maps are wrong. I have seen numerous mistakes and incompetence.”
But he notes that there are examples on the other side of Jews vandalizing trees. “Absolutely. No one will claim we are 100% angels. [But] there is a lot of provocation.
The amount of Jewish fields sabotaged outweigh it.”
He says that in the old days, sometimes Arab orchards were used for terrorism. But today, “it is a turf war… honestly, it is boring and childish.”
Briggs of Regavim also sees outside forces playing a role. “There is plenty of land for everyone,” he says.
“Many of these people have good relationships; there are local disputes that could just be between individuals, but international organizations use these issues to damage Israel.”
He illustrates an endless uphill battle for control of the land that is tipped against the Jewish residents.
For instance, the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria keeps maps of land ownership secret and the army declares areas military closed zones, allowing only Arabs to enter them. The damage done is often exaggerated, he maintains, pointing out that to destroy hundreds of trees it would take large numbers of people.
Provisor has also witnessed conflicts during the olive harvest where Palestinians would steal from each others’ fields.
“It isn’t reported in the media. They know that when there is Arab theft and destruction, they blame the Jews.”
Through blaming it on Jews, Briggs says, they think they will get money from NGOs and raise funds. “It is an industry. I wish these groups truly cared for human rights… I have seen them instigate between Shiloh and Qaryut.”
The COGAT government spokesman notes that the situation is better than it appears in the media. “We meet with the agricultural sector in Palestine and the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture. We facilitate with international organizations such as the FAO, and we meet with local district council heads and mayors.”
The Israeli administrators estimate that around 90% of Palestinians don’t report any problems during their harvest. This includes those harvesting in PA-controlled Area A, Area B and Israeli civilian-controlled Area C. Where there are points of conflict, the IDF is tasked with escorting the harvesters. Where there are questions of who owns the land, “there are lawyers and a court that checks this, and provides the most correct information to us… It is important to us and we assist them in access to their private land, such as making it possible to pass through agricultural gates for farmers.”
According to a senior officer in the IDF Central Command the army works very hard to ensure a safe and peaceful harvest for all communities in the West Bank.
“We try to improve every year, beginning with briefings in July and August. We hold meetings with legitimate human rights organizations and check what is happening every week. There are two populations in the West Bank and we receive complaints also from the Jewish residents.” Where there are points of conflict the IDF says it ensures that Palestinians can enter and pick from the trees they own. The army receives its information from the Civil Administration. Where they anticipate conflict they consult with the Civil Administration to declare land closed military zones from where certain groups; Arabs or Jews, are banned.
Back near Gush Etzion, a resident looks at some of the newly planted fields. “They massively overplant olive trees. I see people come once or twice a year to their ‘orchard.’ The PA wants to create an agricultural belt around each settlement through tree planting.”
It is obvious to him that it doesn’t matter if it takes 20 years for trees to mature; there is no cost or downside to it. “The Israeli authorities don’t care. They won’t uproot the olives.”