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Olive Groves in the West Bank Have Become a Battleground. That’s Why Volunteers Come From Around the World to Help at Harvest Time

11 minute read

This summer, Dylan Jones, a 48-year-old woodworker, walked into an art gallery in his hometown of Caersws, Wales, and found himself drawn to a collection of photographs depicting the harvesting of olives in a small village in the West Bank. He observed grey skies and golden landscapes, men and women reaching up toward the branches of towering olive trees, and piles of purple olives nestled atop a large gray tarp, spread out on the ground.

The photographs were taken by Margaret Munyard, a retired therapist who lives in the nearby Welsh town of Llanidloes. Next to the photos were a series of write ups, detailing the significance of the olive harvest for Palestinians, the destruction of countless centuries-old olive trees by Israeli settlers and army forces in the West Bank, and the risks that farmers take to harvest their olives every year. “It has struck at the core of the Palestinian identity,” Munyard wrote in her captions. She also noted the role of “internationals,” referring to the international volunteers who travel to the West Bank to assist Palestinian farmers during the harvest season—a global brigade of civil peacekeepers. Munyard had taken the photographs six years earlier, when she traveled to the West Bank village of as-Sawiya to do just that.

Jones had never thought of himself as a particularly political person, let alone an activist. His own expertise lies in homegrown timber: the process of cultivating Welsh forest trees into wooden furniture. “Anywhere around the world, it’s a fundamental right to be able to harvest your crop of whatever type. And to see people stopped from doing that, and seeing trees cut down and burnt—I found that shocking, on both a personal and environmental level,” he tells Time. “That was my link in. That was the light bulb moment.” After the exhibition, he contacted Munyard, and a few months later, Jones was on a flight headed toward Tel Aviv.

The olive harvest in the West Bank lasts roughly October through November, a festive season of family and friends coming together to pick olives, often on groves passed on through generations of ancestral inheritance. In the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, 45 percent of agricultural land is planted with olive trees, with the olive oil industry making up a quarter of the region’s gross agricultural income, and supporting the livelihood of about 100,000 families. The olive tree also has broader meanings—historically, the long-living, slow-growing, and drought-resistant olive tree represents peace and resilience for Palestinians, and also holds symbolic value across the religious scriptures of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Dating back at least 4,000 years, Bethlehem’s Al-Badawi is one of the oldest olive trees in the world, a living reminder of the tree’s presence in the region. It is said to have been named after a villager in the Palestinian town of Al-Walaja, who could often be found sitting under the shade of the tree—resting and reflecting—over two centuries ago.

Olive harvest near Jenin
A Palestinian farmer collects olives in an olive grove on the outskirts of the West Bank village of Raba, near the city of Jenin, on Oct. 19, 2019.Alaa Badarneh—EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The politicization of the olive tree is evident at every twist and turn of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, including this year’s Israeli election. Days after Benjamin ​Neta​nyahu’s campaign promise on September 10 to formally annex the Jordan Valley, the Israeli Civil Administration (ICA) issued an order to uproot hundreds of olive trees owned by Palestinians in the valley right before a planned harvest. As Israeli settlements continue to expand in the West Bank, clashes between settlers and Palestinians have surged, often manifesting in the targeting of farmers and their properties—particularly during the harvest season. Over 800,000 Palestinian olive trees have been uprooted by Israeli authorities and settlers since 1967, according to research from the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem. In 2012, two E.U. heads-of-mission reports found that violent Israeli settler attacks against Palestinians especially targeted farmers. Between 2005 and 2013, Israeli NGO Yesh Din found that, out of 211 reported incidents of trees that were cut down, set ablaze, stolen, or otherwise vandalized in the West Bank, only four have led to police indictments.

In 2006, nine human rights organizations filed a petition urging the Israeli high court to allow Palestinian farmers safe access to their olive groves during the harvest. It was unanimously granted. “Our policy is to allow Palestinians to get every last olive from every last tree, even if that tree is in the middle of a settlement,” a spokesman for the ICA, the Israeli governing body in the West Bank, told the LA Times when the decision was first announced. While it was considered a victory at the time, the various ways in which the ruling has not been upheld, or has proved ineffective, has fueled an enduring global response.

For over a decade, hundreds of volunteers from around the world have traveled to the West Bank each year to accompany Palestinian farmers to olive groves in high risk areas. To Be There, the organization through which Jones planned his expedition, was formed in 2013 by a group of local Palestinians, and is one of many local and international groups who recruit volunteers for the harvest. “Their impact is multidimensional,” says Baha Hilo, one of its founders. “It’s about understanding, bearing witness, and buying time so that families can harvest as much as they can.” The description of the harvest program on To Be Theres website makes clear the protective function of international volunteers: “One of the most important roles you play during your visit is that of a witness,” it reads. “From experience, we have observed that Israeli settlers and soldiers behave differently in the presence of ‘internationals’ which contributes to a greater sense of safety felt by Palestinians. They feel more assured in the knowledge that they, and their plight under occupation, are not being ignored – that they are not invisible.”

The notion that international volunteers provide a deterrent presence to settler and army attacks is one that is echoed among farming communities and rights groups in the West Bank. “Usually, they want to improve their public image in front of the internationals, the people that come from America and the U.K., as if to say, ‘Hey, look, we treat them decently’,” says 52-year-old Mahir Shtewi, who owns olives groves near the Israeli settlement of Kedumim, in the West Bank village of Kafr Qaddum. Shtewi’s olive trees have suffered much damage at the hands of settler attacks, often before the harvest even begins. Last year, he arrived at his field with a group of British volunteers to find more than 20 of his olive trees cut down. He shared with TIME photos of damaged olive trees, their branches cut apart and scattered on the ground beneath them. “It’s like seeing your children cut down in front of you,” he said. “What can I tell you? I would never abandon it. This land is as dear to my heart as my own children are, but I swear—sometimes I wish I had never inherited it because of all of these incidents.”

A Palestinian tries to extinguish a fire in an olive grove near the Palestinian village of Burin in the northern West Bank by the Israeli settlement of Yitzhar, on Oct. 16, 2019.Jaafar Ashtiyeh—AFP via Getty Images

Like many other Palestinians who own fields in close proximity to Israeli settlements, Shtewi’s land is subject to the Israeli permit system, which requires him to seek permission from the ICA before harvesting his own olive trees. The ICA then allots specific times when farmers are allowed access to their land—often as little as three days, as is the case for Shtewi—during which Israeli forces are deployed on the ground to supervise. “My wife and I can’t even go to the bathroom—the soldiers are hovering right behind us the entire time,” says Shtewi. “Ten hour days working the fields… and we can’t even use the bathroom.”

Maggie Foyer, a South African-born former ballet dancer and instructor who has picked olives with Shtewi, has made her way to the West Bank for the olive harvest for the past 16 years. She is one of the earliest members of a group of 20-30 mostly British volunteers called Friends of Madama and Burin, named after two neighboring villages in the West Bank. This year, their group spanned the ages of 23 to 78, including a recent college graduate, an archaeologist, a doctor, and a casting director. They wake up around 6.30 a.m., pack water and food, split up into groups of four and head toward the olive groves for the day. Foyer says the atmosphere during the harvest tends to be light-hearted, the volunteers picking alongside the farmers and families with whom they have built a close friendship with over the years, playing Arabic pop songs on their phones, singing and dancing and cracking jokes.

But Foyer also touched on the darker side of this year’s harvest: while attacks against international volunteers are typically rare, locals have reported an uptick in the targeting of volunteers, including the confiscation of their cameras and mobile devices, tear gassing attacks, detainment and physical assaults. One such incident took place on Oct. 16, when masked settlers attacked a group of local farmers and 10 volunteers—four from Friends of Madama and Burin, and six others from Rabbis For Human Rights (RHR), an Israeli human rights organization that also recruits volunteers for the harvest from all over Israel and beyond—who were picking olives on a field in the village of Burin. The attackers came from the nearby settlement of Yitzhar, and charged toward the group with crowbars and stones in hand, injuring five, including an 80-year-old rabbi who sustained a broken arm. In the midst of the attack, the settlers ignited a fire, ultimately destroying hundreds of olive trees.

“The point was to make us scared so that we don’t go back and continue to help with the olive harvest,” says Isaac Johnston, a 23-year-old RHR volunteer from Chicago, who required four stitches to the top of his head as a result of the attack. “In the end, I can come back home to my bed completely safe, but the farmers whose fields were destroyed, who were attacked, they have to go back to living next to Yitzhar, the settlement where the attackers came from, with zero protection.”

Olive harvest near Jenin
Palestinian farmers collect olives in an olive grove on the outskirts of the West Bank village of Raba, near the city of Jenin, on Oct.19, 2019.Alaa Badarneh—EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

“When Palestinians are threatened, you cannot take the easy way out, which is to kick them out ‘for their own good,’” says Arik Ascherman, the former head of RHR, who helped petition for the 2006 Israeli high court decision. He describes the improper use of these military orders as a direct violation of the ruling, and one of the many ways in which the decision has not been honored over the years. Eighteen years ago, Ascherman took part in organizing the first joint activity between Israelis and Palestinians after the second Intifada broke out. It consisted of breaking through the blockade on the Palestinian village of Haris in order to accompany farmers to the olive harvest—a venture that helped pave the way for other local and international organizations to recruit olive harvest volunteers for years to come.

Thirteen years have passed since that promise to allow Palestinians the right to pick every last one of their olives. To many, it seems a distant pipe dream. Still, every year, civilians from around the world have stepped in where governments and their institutions have not. Dylan Jones has spent nine days in the West Bank working the olives groves, and in between, exploring the shops of Bethlehem’s famous wood carvers, whose creations are made out of pruned local olive trees. “Just got back from a great day picking. Such a beautiful valley, climbing up trees as old as 2,000 years. There must have been around 20 of us from many different countries,” he wrote in a text message toward the end of his time in the West Bank. “An unofficial United Nations in the trees.”

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