“…In the beginning, we caught the settlers stealing olives from our trees. Then they started breaking off the branches, but they grew back and we also planted new trees to replace those damaged. Then, three years ago when we went to pick our olives we were shocked to find the trees all yellow and dried up... Settlers had drilled into the trunks and injected them with a poisonous substance that killed the trees from the roots up.”
Hussein Abu Alia’s narrative appears in a 2013 study of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the occupied Palestinian territory (UNOCHA OPT) on the impact of Israeli settler violence on the olive harvest.
The Jordan-based Arab Group for the Protection of Nature (APN) estimates that about three million trees, including olive trees, have been destroyed from 2001 onwards, while around 1.5 million trees were uprooted from 2001-2007 by Israeli settlers and defence forces. Palestine’s olive trees date back hundreds of years and represent Palestinian history and continuity on the land. The annual olive harvest is an important cultural and social event for Palestinians. The trees have considerable economic significance — nearly 48 per cent of agricultural land in the OPT is planted with olive trees, mostly in the West Bank.
According to APN estimates, olive trees account for 70 per cent of fruit production and contribute around 14 per cent to the Palestinian economy.
APN founder, Razan Zuayter in an email, described the destruction of trees as an ‘agricultural war’ waged by Israel. Not confined to destroying trees, the onslaught on agriculture includes an arbitrary permit system, the Gaza blockade and the Apartheid wall. The permit system regulates access of Palestinian farmers to their lands in parts of West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Permits grant limited access only to the person, under whose name the land is registered, and not the family. Farmers, whose land is near Israeli settlements, additionally need to pass through agricultural checkpoints. These checkpoints are opened certain times a year and for a few hours a day.
A 2011 UNOCHA OPT study on the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip notes that Israel’s blockade has resulted in major restrictions on access to agricultural land and fishing waters, import and export of food and agricultural inputs, and also the destruction of small farms, olive trees and citrus orchards. The study notes that 54 per cent of people in Gaza are food insecure.
The Apartheid Wall which Israel is building has drastically altered Palestine’s contours. Ritu Menon notes in the recently published From India to Palestine. Essays in Solidarity: “The Wall. Six hundred kilometres of electrified concrete slabs, eight metres high, topped with razor wire, arc lights, surveillance cameras, encircling the West Bank, snaking through fields and olive groves, through city streets, alongside homes, dividing friends and families, erecting barriers and checkpoints. The Israelis call it a “security fence”, a protection against suicide bombers; the Palestinians call it the Apartheid Wall...Thousands of olive trees, some over 600 years old have been uprooted; hundreds of thousand villagers dispossessed, their farming at a standstill.”
There has been resistance on the ground, such as the APN-spearheaded Million Tree Campaign, which has resulted in the replanting of nearly two million trees in Palestine. But this is an uphill task given the nature of Israel’s occupation — involving not just the physical deployment of soldiers and settlers — but also control over civil liberties, culture, environment, livelihoods, and agriculture. The larger design is to make everyday life in Palestine a struggle, ultimately amounting to a denial of Palestinian selfhood.