Reflections from a protective presence team member

Travel and food writer, Fiona Dunlop, took part in the 2019 Protective Presence trip. She shared her reflections with us….

This year’s Palestinian olive harvest has seen extreme highs and extreme lows, the latter concentrated in the groves near extremist Israeli settlements. In the valley of Burin, immediately southwest of Nablus, aggressive threats and attacks on farmers and on international volunteers have marred and delayed what has otherwise been a bumper harvest – thought to be the best in 15 years.

The worst incident took place on October 15th when four British volunteers and six Israeli volunteers from Rabbis for Human Rights were working with three Palestinian farmers on the slopes below Yitzhar, a settlement known for its aggression and previous assaults. In this case, a group of a dozen or so masked youths suddenly appeared in the grove wielding crowbars and cudgels with which they hit and beat the volunteers, badly injuring an 80-year old rabbi and leaving the British volunteers traumatised and badly bruised. At the same time the trees were set on fire by the settlers, burning an estimated 60 according to the farmer, Hamed.

Other less ferocious attacks this year have been aided by the IDF (Israeli Defence Force) who do nothing to protect the farmers. This means that children tend to only help out when the groves are in safe locations, in or near the village.

Before the harvest started in October, farmers were asked by the Ministry of Agriculture not to pick early as, due to summer weather conditions, olives were expected to take longer to ripen, making them harder to press. Most farmers will end their harvest by the middle of November.

According to Akram, 50 years old and Burin’s largest farmer, “This year’s harvest is far better than last year, although 2017 was also extremely good. We had a lot of rain last April and May which helped olive growth a lot.” Akram owns 450 trees in several groves dotted around the valley which he picks with the help of five or six paid workers and his nephew, Issa. By selling his olive oil in Ramallah and in Nablus, he earns enough to support himself and his seven children, although he is now expanding into the local catering business to supplement this income.

Although Akram has not suffered any major attacks this year, he has undergone daily harassment from settlers, and on the day Zaytoun spoke to him (a Friday), he had been sent off his groves by the IDF and told to return on Sunday. “In 2016 I lost 117 trees” he tells us sadly, “Some were burned and others chopped down by settlers”. Over the years he has often had help from international volunteers which, he says “makes a difference – and we enjoy having them with us.”

Bahaa, in his 20s, is another Burin farmer, although not full-time like Akram. As his only brother has emigrated to the U.S. and his father is still working, the harvesting of the family groves falls almost entirely on his shoulders. Most of his trees are located very high up on the slopes, just below the settlement of Bracha, making them particularly vulnerable, while others are in a safer location in the village. “Due to the difficult location, I haven’t done anything to the trees near Bracha since last year’s harvest, and during harvest I don’t bother about permits – I just go! Surprisingly the trees high up have produced lots of olives this year, although less in the ones down in the village.”

The location of his better groves means that throughout the year no tilling, pruning or weeding can be done (“I prune while I pick”), and Bahaa manages to squeeze all the harvesting into a week or so with the help of paid workers and international volunteers. “A lot of the volunteers have become my friends over the years, and it really helps to have them with us.”

To end on a positive note for 2019, when trees have been tended over the year the crop is very impressive: for example in about 4 hours four of our volunteers helped five adult family members fill six sacks of about 40kg each – a bountiful morning!

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