Olive Highs and Lows

It’s olive picking season again and that means that many people take to the fields in a rush to pick their olives in the narrow window after the first rains but before the cold weather sets in.

Olive picking is a deep-rooted part of Palestinian society that has been part of the annual calendar for thousands of years. It is a lucrative business, and with just a few trees, a family can reap enough olive oil to last them throughout the year. With larger plots of land, people can sell the oil and have the basis of a decent income. It’s estimated that over 80,000 Palestinian families depend on the olive harvest for their income.

The trees are well adapted to the landscape and don’t need much care beyond pruning, a bit of pest control and an occasional watering to thrive. Traditionally, the olive harvest is a time when families come together to help each other out and spend long days in the field together. Most of the picking is done by hand and it is a time-consuming task but a rewarding one. It would be idyllic if it weren’t for the harsh conditions imposed by the illegal Israeli occupation that prevents many farmers from accessing and harvesting their lands.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) keeps a record of violent incidents across Palestine. During 2021 the number of incidents of settler[1] violence has already exceeded the figures for 2019 and 2020. And since the start of the olive harvest on 12 October over 1400 trees were damaged or had their harvests stolen by Israeli settlers.

As well as worrying about physical violence from Israeli settlers and the threat of trees being burned or damaged, many Palestinians are refused access to their land by the Israeli state. The separation barrier (the wall) has cut some farmers off from their land and they now have to apply for permits to access their land. This is often refused or restricted to a few days a year which gives insufficient time to tend for and harvest their trees properly. This short ICRC video summarises the issues well as does this one from YPlus, which shares the anguish many families now face around the olive harvest.

Many Palestinians are resilient like their trees however, and I’ve been lucky over the past few weeks to have three uplifting olive encounters.

Olive picking in the Gethsemane gardens

Fra Diego is an Italian Franciscan priest who cares for the Garden of Gethsemane and each year he opens the garden to anyone wishing to help him collect their olive harvest. The Garden of Gethsemane is the Holy Grail of olive trees as it contains the trees that Jesus was thought to have sat under when he learnt of his betrayal and was subsequently arrested.

Those special trees are fenced off and we were ushered to the garden behind the Church where Fra Diego, in his brown robes, welcomed us warmly. He asked the nationalities of those present and led a prayer to kick things off. He then invited us to clamber into the trees and begin work, picking the olives and throwing them on to the canvases below.

Within minutes Diego had changed into his working clothes and he supervised the groups, offering ladders and conversation to us as we worked. He told me he had lived here 10 years already and I asked if he now considered this home. ‘Only God knows how long I will stay here’ he responded.

Later on, Fra Diego started up the olive press machine and invited us in to see the green oil flowing out and to taste the freshly pressed oil. With the gold roof of the Dome of the Rock glistening in the background, it seemed like the best place in the world to be.

On Saturday, we offered our services to Mustafa or Abu Ahmad as he is known, who has several hundred olive trees in Battir. His team had already been working for several hours when we rocked up with a few other families and found a well-oiled system in place. ‘Yalla’ he shouted, ‘one here’, ‘one there’, ‘you come with me’ and he set us straight to work at different stations. His approach was to prune and pick at the same time, so chainsaws brought down large branches from the tree which we then sat and picked the olives off. The olives were large, deep green and very healthy looking.

As we sifted through the olives pulling out the leaves and small branches, a small chameleon emerged. It was dark coloured and about 5cm long. The kids instantly adopted it and we didn’t see them for hours after that as they cared for it and marvelled as its skin changed colour from black to green with yellow spots.

Abu Ahmad chatted about the price of olive oil, about his seven children, the senior position he held at UNRWA before he retired, and he was inquisitive about our lives. He would be picking from 7am till 5pm for 21 days and he was glad of any help he could get. ‘We are all farmers here’ he said, and pointing towards another man ‘he is a bank manager but during the harvest he is a farmer’.

Abu Ahmad hard at work
Friends and family pitch in to help

It was therapeutic and relaxing. In the distance Jerusalem stretched out, the hilltop settlements distorting the view, but here on Abu Ahmad’s land everything was peaceful and productive as it was meant to be.

The Zaytoun range

Finally, if you come across the Zaytoun brand of olive oil around the world then it has come from the Canaan fair trade factory near Jenin. I visited a few weeks ago and was really impressed with the business model which guarantees a fair price to farmers, advocates for farmers rights’ and produces top quality produce for international export.   

There are still several weeks left of the olive harvest, and I hope the rights of Palestinian farmers to collect their harvest from their land will be protected and this ancient tradition will be preserved for future generations.

[1] Settlers are Israelis who illegally set up residence in Palestine, claiming territory as their own. This is illegal under international law but is not stopped by Israel, if anything they are encouraged. They are often heavily armed and use violent means to expand their territory at the expense of Palestinians.

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