ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Olive Offerings

How the olive sustains Palestinian society

“Olives are life,” said Talha Darwish with a smile, repeating a Palestinian adage. “With olives in the house no one ever starves.” The 56–year–old retired teacher now depends almost exclusively on cultivating olives and other produce, such as grapes and apples, to support his family in Al Khader, a Muslim village near Bethlehem named for St. George.

Long have Palestinians considered olives their most important crop. At the Darwish home, olive oil is served with bread every morning along with locally grown thyme and homemade jams and yogurt. During the harvest season, the family often takes the same meal with them as a packed lunch with cured olives, tomatoes and cucumbers. And almost every evening, olives find their way to the dinner table.

Mr. Darwish owns a considerable amount of land, which includes four olive groves. He received the property from his 76–year–old father, who despite his age continues to farm his own land.

“My father gave this land to me and now I cultivate it together with my family. I teach my children to work the land.

“Here,” he added pointedly, “we have a relation to our land.”

Mr. Darwish and his 46–year–old wife, Zuhra, have eight children. Two of their daughters are married with children. Several sons currently attend university and the youngest is in fifth grade. In autumn, during olive–picking season, the children take turns helping out their parents.

One morning last September, the couple and one of their elder sons, Matassem, set out together with their white donkey on the 40–minute trek to the family’s olive grove on the mountain slope facing the village. Until October 2000, the Darwish family drove their car to the grove. But after the second intifada erupted, the Israeli Defense Forces closed the road connecting their village to the adjacent mountain. No longer able to transport their harvest by car, they now depend on the ever–reliable donkey to carry heavy loads.

Upon arriving at the grove, father, mother and son began picking olives by hand, collecting fruit ranging in color from light green to deep purple. By the end of the afternoon, they had filled two large sacks, together weighing some 220 pounds.

After hauling the heavy loads on either side of the donkey, the three weary pickers headed home. On the way, Mr. Darwish projected that he and his family would finish picking all the fruit in this grove within the next six days and then move on to his other groves.

“There are 70 olive trees in this grove I planted some 20 years ago. In other fields to the south of the village, I have another 300 olive trees. All together, I have almost 400 trees. This year, I expect about 127 quarts of oil,” he said.

After returning home, Zuhra Darwish worked another five or six hours sorting the olives, setting aside the purple ones for her husband to press for oil while she cracked the green ones for curing.

Sitting on the floor of an unfurnished room, she reached with her left hand into a pile of freshly picked green olives, took exactly five olives and placed them at the center of a piece of black plastic, apparently torn from a grocery bag. Reflexively, she closely lined the olives next to one another and, with a small flat rock she held in her right hand, she cracked them open, quickly scooped them up and placed them into a small plastic bucket at her side. Without pausing, she reached into the pile and repeated the process again and again.

Talha Darwish does not anticipate a profit from this year’s harvest. A drought last winter took a heavy toll, reducing yields. What he expects to produce will barely last through the year.

In years with normal rainfall, the same trees yield much larger harvests, allowing the family to sell both fresh olives and olive oil. Last year, for example, the family produced over 211 quarts of oil, of which they sold about half at a profit.

Mr. Darwish worries about the future of his family business for another reason. Either an Israeli settlement or the Israeli separation barrier touches a portion of every one of his properties.

“It is important for us to stake our claim to the land and hold onto it because of the settlers,” explained Mr. Darwish, looking west at a cluster of red painted houses a half mile away. An Israeli built the outpost, which the Israeli government considers illegal. Nevertheless, Israeli soldiers guard it. From time to time they visit Mr. Darwish on his property and request his identification papers. Sometimes, the soldiers instruct the family to leave their grove for the day. And, on occasion, settlers from the outpost harass them until they have no choice but to leave.

“The olive tree is very important to Palestinians. We consider it a blessing, a gift of love and peace,” explained Nadi Farraj, a local agronomist and expert in olive production who consults on a number of olive–related projects in Bethlehem.

“The olive tree is mentioned 13 times in the Quran and 16 times in the Bible, and we believe that the olive tree originates here in Palestine. Two of the oldest trees in this area have been dated by a Japanese olive tree specialist to be around 5,000 years old.

“The circumference of the oldest one is more than 82 feet,” he continued.

The olive trees in Jerusalem’s Garden of Gethsemane are said to have “witnessed Jesus Christ walk through the garden.” Given the age of some, it is entirely possible the trees were contemporaries of Jesus.

Olives represent by far the most important agricultural product in the West Bank and Gaza. Of the roughly 656 square miles of agricultural land in the territories, some 386 are planted with olive trees. In addition to olives and olive oil, Palestinians use branches as fuel to heat their homes and, in and around Bethlehem, to carve Christian religious souvenirs for commercial sale.

Mr. Farraj would like the Palestinian government to invest more in agricultural research to increase the territories’ olive crop yields. Whereas an average Palestinian olive tree produces about 10 quarts of oil per season, he says, the average Italian olive tree produces 39 quarts. While he acknowledges the weather conditions in the two countries differ significantly, Mr. Farraj believes that better cultivation techniques tailored to the local environment would increase crop yields.

“We know the obstacles we have. Partly it’s the occupation, partly the olive fly that attacks some 30 to 40 percent of the olives and lowers both the yield and the quality of the oil and partly the people themselves,” he explained.

“Some things could be done even without further scientific research such as building service roads for easier access and building water reservoirs for irrigation purposes. We don’t want farmers to use pesticides, but by using fly traps we could save some 331 tons of olives a year.”

If Palestinians hope to eliminate the olive fly, which knows no borders, said Mr. Farraj, they will have to work with Israelis and Jordanians, who also cultivate olives.

The encroachment of Israeli settlers on Palestinian land ranks among the chief obstacles facing many Palestinian commercial olive farmers, particularly those in the northern West Bank who own larger tracts of land.

In the long broad valley east of the city of Nablus, olive groves cover the valley floor and the slopes that shield it. The groves’ landowners and laborers live in Nablus and the nearby villages. To the west, on a mountainous slope, sits Itamar, a militant Israeli settlement. In recent years, Itamar’s inhabitants have established a number of outposts near Palestinian–owned property. These settlers regularly harass the Palestinian olive farmers.

To prevent clashes, the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli District Coordination Office together have implemented a set of measures. During harvest season, police and military forces stand guard so that Palestinian farmers can work undisturbed. But since security forces cannot watch over all the groves at once, they negotiate a schedule with farmers ahead of the harvest season. Each landowner receives set dates for designated groves during which time family members and laborers can harvest the olives in the presence of security forces.

To ensure all the olives are collected in the allotted time, several Israeli and Israeli–Palestinian nongovernmental organizations hire volunteers to help with each harvest.

One such organization is Rabbis for Human Rights. Founded in 1988, the organization brings together over a 100 rabbis and rabbinical students of all branches and involves them in peace–building and human rights activities in Israel, the Palestinian territories and the greater Middle East.

For years, Rabbis for Human Rights has enlisted and coordinated volunteers to help Palestinians harvest their olives.

On a recent autumn day in a grove near Nablus, Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann led a group of 28 Israeli and international volunteers to help pick olives and protect Palestinians farmers. If trouble erupted, volunteers were instructed to inform the security forces standing guard in the vicinity.

This particular grove, which includes more than 730 olive trees, belongs to Nabeeh Aldeeb. Ever since 2005, when the authorities first intervened to protect Palestinian farmers and their property from the settlers, Mr. Aldeeb has only 10 days to harvest his olives.

“I am now allowed here only twice a year. One day to plow and 10 days for the picking,” Mr. Aldeeb explained.

“When we are here, the army and police come and go all day because eight years ago the settlers came and cut 420 of my trees down almost to the ground. Only two years ago did those trees grow back and now bear fruit again. But when we are not here, the settlers bring their sheep and they eat the branches. My neighbors whose trees are closer to the settlement cannot harvest their olives and now I have called the army and they have promised to protect us.”

To help out with this year’s harvest, Mr. Aldeeb also hired between 40 and 50 Palestinian day laborers. He does not pay his workers in cash but in olives, allowing them to take home half of what they pick.

The workers include entire families — from small children to elderly grandparents. Everyone who is able pitches in, picking and sorting olives from dawn until the day’s end.

Laborers and volunteers climb ladders to pick the olives or just shake the branches until the fruit drops onto large nylon sheets spread out on the ground. Some of the youngsters climb the trees to reach the fruit. Older women, watching the infants and toddlers, sit in the shade and remove the leaves and twigs from the olives and separate them into two piles: green and purple.

Mr. Aldeeb planted the trees on his land 38 years ago, when he settled in Nablus after graduating from Cairo University with a degree in agriculture. Besides farming, he chairs the Palestinian Olive and Oil Council.

“Olives are central to our society,” he said. “There are 80,000 to 90,000 Palestinian olive farmers who own land and grow olives. There are 253 olive presses and, on top of that, a number of people are occupied with marketing the oil.

“About a third of the Palestinian population lives directly off olives and another 20 percent depends indirectly on olives,” said Mr. Aldeeb, looking affectionately upon his grove. “An average Palestinian consumes 4.23 quarts of olive oil a year,” he added.

Until the recent availability of cheaper industrially made oils such as corn, canola and soy, Palestinian families used olive oil almost exclusively. Such dietary changes have contributed to a host of new health risks.

Among the volunteers working Mr. Aldeeb’s grove was Zohar Lavie, an Israeli woman in her mid–20’s.

“What happens to the people here really hurts me and so I have arranged to come with a group of people to help. It is really healing for me to be here and face my fear.

“So much fear has been instilled in me about Palestinian people,” she confessed, “so coming face to face with that and crossing the feared border is very healing.”

As Ms. Lavie picked olives, she became friendly with her Palestinian coworkers. One family told her about their youngest son who is in an Israeli prison and the father who used to work as a cook in Israel but no longer has a permit to enter the state. According to Ms. Lavie, the family longs for the time when Israelis and Palestinians can live and work together in peace.

“I am meeting people who really want peace and I feel that by being here with them I am helping the situation to be a little less violent.”

Looking out over his land, Nabeeh Aldeeb was moved by what he saw: Palestinians and Israelis picking olives together.

“I feel that the politicians are very far away from the people,” he said with a sigh as olives from a nearby tree dropped softly and the distinct smell of the fruit filled the early autumn air.

“Those volunteers are Jewish from Tel Aviv and they come to help not to hit or hurt. The politicians are far away from these people.”

Hanne Foighel is a Danish-born journalist who has spent the last 25 years reporting from the Middle East for the European publications. Photographer Ahikam Seri’s work has been published in The Independent (UK), The New York Times and Denmark’s Politiken.

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