In the West Bank, Palestinian olive farmers fear for the worst in this year's harvest
BEITUNIA, West Bank — This time of year, Palestinian olive farmers are usually hard at work in their groves. But during this harvest season, 35-year-old West Bank farmer Thaer el Taher can only look out on his hillside olive groves from afar. Because of the war in Gaza, he has not been able to access his land.
"You see the fence over there?" he says, pointing down at a barrier running across the hilly, arid terrain.
El Taher has pulled to the side of the rutted road that winds out of his village of Beitunia. "Do you see the olive trees over there on the hill on the other side of the fence?" he says. "All of that is Beitunia's inaccessible lands."
Inaccessible because the land is on the other side of the barrier separating the West Bank from Israel. Even in normal times, harvest season is fraught for Palestinian farmers living near the barrier. They are only allowed to access their olive trees for a limited number of hours and days. This year, the Israel-Hamas war has meant little to no access at all.
Israel built the barrier two decades ago, against the backdrop of a Palestinian uprising and repeated suicide bombings known as the second intifada. In urban areas, the barrier is a 22-foot wall. Out here, it's a barbed wire, electrified fence.
The 440-mile circuitous barrier strays into West Bank territory — including most of the land El Taher says he inherited from his grandfather.
"Twenty years ago, when this route of the separation barrier was first revealed, the whole international community was up in arms," says Jessica Montell, an Israeli human rights advocate whose organization, HamoKed, or Hotline, works to get Palestinians access to their farmland cut off by the barrier. "The Israeli government made a lot of promises that this would in no way disrupt people living alongside the route."
But that's exactly what the barrier has done, she tells NPR in her office in East Jerusalem. It has cut Palestinians off from a little over 9% of their land, she says. Farmers' lives now revolve around a system of permits and access schedules for when Israeli soldiers will open the barrier gates.
El Taher explains how, in normal times, Palestinian farmers have to register for the olive harvest.
"You show up early in the morning at the gate," he says, "soldiers check your ID and you're allowed to get to your groves."
No one passes if their name is not on the list, he says, and families are restricted to a certain number.
He remembers going to the same land with his father when he was a boy, before the barrier was built.
"In the morning, we would check on the grapes, we would check on the olives, and in the afternoon, we would go pick the figs," he says. "Life in Beitunia was all focused on agriculture and we were able to go to our lands twice a day."
Forty-eight-year-old Naser El Khatib, also an olive farmer and a friend of El Taher's, calls farming an instinct inherited from his ancestors. El Khatib says 17,000 square yards of his olive groves are behind the separation barrier and he can never properly attend to them.
"We never have enough time in our groves and we cannot take the tools we need," he says. "If I carry scissors, I'm not allowed to take them. They consider they might be a danger to other people."
During a typical olive harvest season, the gates are opened and the farmers are able to access their lands for about 40 days, from early in the morning until evening. After the Oct. 7 attack, Palestinians have not been allowed to enter Israel.
But, Montell points out, "These farmers don't want to enter Israel. They want to enter lands inside the West Bank, on the other side of the separation wall."
HamoKed petitioned Israel's Supreme Court to open the gates for the farmers. Last week, that petition was rejected. The government countered that the restrictions on movement were the result of the "unusual" and "complex" security situation due to the war. It said the situation is being reviewed daily out of a desire to return to routine.
But Montell says it's likely too late for Palestinian farmers.
"There's a small window to finish harvesting these groves," she says. "If they don't get access, they're going to lose a year's worth of income."
Palestinian olive farmers say they are also facing increased harassment from Israeli settlers this year. El Khatib says the settlers are always there at harvest time. "Every year they come when we enter to harvest our trees," he says. "We try to avoid them. But the atmosphere becomes very tense. They take pictures of us and are constantly doing things to disrupt and annoy us."
Roy Yellin, the head of outreach for Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem, says settlers, many of whom are armed by the state, now are exploiting the new climate of fear in Israel to further their own political agenda. There have been reports of violence and intimidation of Palestinian farmers, with settlers even uprooting and burning olive trees.
Dia M. Qurt is the mayor of Beitunia. His fourth-floor office looks out on the hillside of off-limits olive groves.
He says Israel claims the barrier is to protect Jewish settlements.
"But basically this is about the theft of Palestinian land," he says. "When they ban people from going to their land, they consolidate their presence on these lands."
Olives and olive byproducts are the largest economic sector in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, says Mohammad Olwan, deputy head of the Palestinian farmers' union. A poster in his Ramallah office reads: "They uproot one tree, we plant ten."
But he says it's bigger than the economy.
"Olives and olive trees are a cultural symbol," says Olwan. "They consolidate Palestinian existence on the land, both symbolically and realistically."
Olwan says between 50% and 90% of farmers' earnings in this area come from olives.
At a local olive cooperative, olive press owner Saad Awwad is sitting out in front of the facility on an old bus seat propped against the wall. His press is usually humming away this time of year. But on this day, it sits empty and idle. Olwan says there are simply no olives to press.
"Only those who live far from the separation barrier and the Jewish settlements have been able to pick their olives this year," he says. "Around here, thousands of acres have gone to waste, and many farmers will go bankrupt."
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