38 cut olive trees and a box of eggs

by Johanna, Bethlehem team

Johanna was an EA in Fall 2013 and returned again this year as an EA in Bethlehem.

Mahmoud Shawash shows his destroyed olive trees. Photo EAPPI/J. Kaprio.

The former village councilor of Husan shows us the field of destroyed olive trees. Photo EAPPI/J. Kaprio.

In Greek mythology, warrior Goddess Athena and God of the seas Poseidon were competing over the possession of Athens. The mighty Poseidon struck his trident into the Athenian Acropolis, creating a well of salt water. While the public marveled at Poseidon’s achievement, Athena’s approach was more peaceful, she planted an olive tree just next to the well. The divine tribunal sided with Athena, for giving the city a greater gift: the first olive tree.

In the Mediterranean region, olive tree symbolises peace and prosperity. In the occupied Palestinian territories, nearly 51% of the cultivated land is planted with olive trees and and the olive oil industry makes up to 25 % of the region’s agricultural income.

But is there any peace or prosperity under the olive tree in occupied Palestine?

In the morning of 9 October the Schawash family from the West Bank village of Husan was alerted to a saddening reality – at the eve of the olive harvest season they found 38 of their olive trees cut. They had not visited their olive grove for 3 days, and their discovery was a shock.

While no one from the village was present during the time of the sabotage, which seems to have happened during dark hours, all clues seem to lead to the neighbouring settlement of Betar Illit. After all, it was only two days before that settlers of Betar Illit set fire to 15 olive trees in the village of Nahhalin and four months since they torched 60 olive trees in Husan.

The sight of the field is devastating. The cut parts of the trees laying on the ground have already lost their green color and the olives have dried.

Mahmoud Shawash, head of the affected family tells us that the trees were 40 to 50 years old.

“We wait for 10-15 years for the olive trees to grow, only to find them destroyed over night, he says with glum voice.”

Olive cultivation is the main source of livelihood of the Shawash family. Altogether they have 300 trees.

Mahmoud Shawash estimates that the loss of the cut trees is between 40 to 50 gallons (150-190 liters) of oil. One gallon earns the family over 500 NIS (130 €). It would have been challenging enough without the devastation of the trees. As the weather has been dry in the region throughout the whole year, the harvest this year is poorer than average.

JKaprio_Olives_09102014

The Shawash family estimates they lost 40 to 50 gallons of oil, a total loss of 20,000 to 30,000 Israeli shekels. Photo EAPPI/J. Kaprio.

Settler attacks against olive trees are a constant threat to Palestinian farmers. In various incidents yearly, Palestinian-owned olive trees get damaged, poisoned, uprooted, burnt down or harvested by settlers. Between 2009 – August 2013 altogether over 38,000 trees [3],[4]. I remember just too well last year my EAPPI colleagues firefighting alongside with Palestinian farmers in Yalud, where Israeli settlers set fire to hundreds of olive trees.

Only rarely do any of these acts of settler violence against Palestinian trees bear consequences to the perpetrators. According to Israeli NGO Yesh Din, between 2005-2012 only 1 out of 162 complaints lead to prosecution.

But why would the settlers commit to such an act?

“The settlers want to scare us out of our fields,” Mahmoud Shawash tells me firmly.

His fear is not without foundation. For the Israel Civil Administration, which has the authority over the Area C of the West Bank, a farmer who continuously cultivates a piece of land over 10 years becomes the de facto owner of it. However, as the land registry process has been halted since the start of the occupation in 1967, land ownership after this year goes without official documentation.

In addition, Israel follows the Ottoman Land Code which allows the state of Israel  to confiscate land that has been left uncultivated for a period of three years and although by law state land should be allocated for the benefit of the local Palestinian population in the occupied territories, in reality it is usually allocated to Israeli settlements. Moreover, in a number of cases, Palestinian land owners have suffered losses of land as a result of Israeli authority imposed access restrictions to their fields, such as restricted permits and the separation barrier that in many parts of the West Bank separates farmers from their fields. Settler violence adds to these challenges.

Indeed in the bigger picture, these acts of sabotage, committed by individuals but unpunished by the system, conveniently support an ongoing strategic land grab that Israel is carrying out in the occupied Palestinian territories, for the benefit of the Israeli settlers.

Betar Illit, which was established in 1984 on the lands of Husan village, is the one of largest settlements in the West Bank and among the most rapidly expanding ones. Israel’s recent announcement to confiscate 4,000 dunums (990 acres) of Palestinian land near Bethlehem, in order to allow for further settlement expansion, benefits the Betar Illit settlement and directly affects its neighboring villages, including Husan. This recent development causes anxiety among inhabitants of Husan as well as other Palestinian villages in the area.

PCostello_Betar Illit settlement_Bethlehem_Oct2014

Beitar Illit settlement. Photo EAPPI/P. Costello.

In the field, work continues nevertheless. On 18 October, I find myself back at the Husan olive groves, where we have been asked to join and help with the olive harvest. While we are picking olives right next to the fence of the settlement, there is a cheerful spirit of a family gathering and news exchange between some of the international volunteers that have come for help. Lots of Arabic coffee is consumed and stories are told.

The first day of the harvest goes by smoothly, no settler stones thrown on the harvesters and no curse words towards them, as has happened in the past. At least almost. A small incident during the day of harvest gives me a taste of what working next to a settlement can be like. While taking some photos of our work in process, we notice a couple of settlers filming us from a nearby house. It doesn’t take long until the military arrives. To my suprise, they want to speak to me. Question is, do I work for the television? And if I do, they would need to see my film. Unfortunately for them, I am just an ordinary person with an ordinary camera, and so they let us back to our work.

On our way home through the village of Husan, we pass by a group of settlers from Betar Illit, buying eggs from a farmer from Husan village. It makes you wonder, how is it consistent that members of the same community who destroy trees at night, buy daily commodities from the same village during the day? Perhaps the answer lies on the fact that olive trees need humans to take care of them… Exactly what Athena wanted to show when she offered the olive trees as a present to humanity, for them to provide food, oil and wood over generation… Peace needs humans who will take care of it.

JKaprio_Statue of Athena in central Athens_Greece_2010

Statue of Athena in central Athens. Photo J. Kaprio.

In line with Article 49 of the 4th Geneva Convention, the Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories are illegal, and their continuous expansion is the single biggest obstacle to what the olive tree symbolises: peace.

*The article 38 cut olive trees and a box of eggs originally appeared on Johanna’s blog.

“There’s something not human about what happens here.” – Checkpoint video & photos

Checkpoint 300. Photo EAPPI/S. Amrad.

Checkpoint 300, Bethlehem. Photo EAPPI/S. Amrad.

Watch this short video from an EA about what it’s like at the checkpoint everyday.

Check out our new photo album on the EAPPI website with photo resources about Checkpoints & Agricultural gates.

Occupation: cancer in the blood

 

The daily reality of having to crossing an agricultural gate and rely on soldier behavior in order to access your farmland, and thus, your livelihood.

by Jayyus/Tulkarm team

A shepherd and his sheep go through 'Akkaba agricultural gate. Photo EAPPI/K. Osterblom.

A shepherd and his sheep go through ‘Akkaba agricultural gate. Photo EAPPI/K. Osterblom.

“The occupation is a cancer in the blood.” These were the words of a Palestinian farmer waiting to cross North gate, one of the 80 agricultural gates situated in the West Bank.

To reach his land, on the other side of the separation barrier, he must get a permit from the Israeli authorities and ensure that he crosses the gate during the opening hours that are decided by the same Israeli authorities. Over recent years, the number of permits issued has dwindled and the opening hours have become shorter and more sporadic. And yet still, the farmers must comply with these regulations, decided an occupying government and implemented in occupied territory: the alternative would mean losing one’s livelihood.

Being based in the Jayyus/Tulkarm area, a large part of our work involves monitoring these agricultural gates. The intimate setting – a sort of magnified version of a checkpoint – means that we are able to observe the soldiers and Palestinians very closely, watching the scene play out. Perhaps the most unnerving thing that we observe is the unpredictability of the soldiers’ behavior. 

Imagine having a boss who banned you from entering your office one day for wearing trainers, only to open the door for you the following day despite the fact that you were still wearing the same trainers. From where we stand, a lot of the measures carried out as a result of the occupation seem to be dependent on the mood of the soldiers.

“This is my country,” were the words uttered by one soldier manning an agricultural gate, as he stood in front of around 80 farmers waiting at ‘Attil gate to cross over the separation barrier (85% of which, when completed, will run inside the Green Line).

Earlier that morning the same soldier had, at a nearby agricultural gate, made each Palestinian lift up his trouser legs and t-shirt, sometimes instructing them to remove one or two shoes. There was no rhyme or reason to his behaviour; not every farmer was treated the same. He even told one to put out his cigarette whilst he was talking to him.

Occasionally the soldiers show an interest in what we EAs are doing at the gate.

One asked “Isn’t it dangerous living in Jayyus? If we went there they would kill us.”

To hear this coming from a man fully armed whilst standing in front of a group of unarmed farmers waiting to get to their land was quite surprising. This statement demonstrated the degree to which the ‘them and us’ mentality is so deeply ingrained, which will poison to any proposed peace solution, whether two or one state.

Some things we see would be funny if they were not so tragic and symptomatic of the absurdity of the occupation.

At one gate, ‘Akkaba, a flock of around 100 sheep were let through the gate before their shepherd, who was subsequently refused entry – he was not even allowed to go through the gate to retrieve them, and had to ask his brother to tend them.

Another man, Ahmad Said, who lost 250 of his olive trees due to the construction of the separation barrier across his land, is on the permit blacklist until 2099. What had earned him a place on this list? Not the fact that he had been to prison, but the fact that in 2003 he had been involved in activities against the wall.

Not only is it important to be aware of the poor treatment of the farmers and workers that is meted out by some of the soldiers, but also to consider what agricultural gates mean in the more general sense.  They represent yet one more obstacle preventing Palestinians from accessing their own land. Needless to say, these gates have serious economic consequences: because the gates are not open all year round the farmers are unable to tend to their crops continuously, which greatly affects their yield.

During the month of March 2014, ‘Akkaba gate was opened late on numerous occasions, with delays ranging from 15 minutes to 1.5 hours. On 22 April 2014 the soldiers arrived 2 hours late. This unpredictability makes life incredibly difficult for the farmers, as by the time they reach their land it is already getting warm.

More worryingly, the unpredictable behavior of the Israeli soldiers demonstrates a lack of respect for the Palestinian farmers and workers, and a complete disregard for their livelihoods – if the farmers are not informed of the correct opening times, they cannot rely on being able to use their land for a stable income.

The Israeli government, as the occupying power, has an obligation to provide for the basic needs of the population – this means that they should be facilitating, rather than preventing the occupied population from being able to use their own land in order to make a living. If a two state solution does come into existence, and the borders are drawn along the line of the wall, it is likely that these problems faced by farmers and workers will be greatly exacerbated, perhaps to the extent that they will no longer be able to gain access to their land at all.

In the meantime, what is to be done?

As one Palestinian woman said, ‘my existence is my resistance’.

In that way, persistence is also a form of resistance – the farmers keep going to their land to demonstrate to the soldiers that they will not surrender.

As for us EAs, we keep calling the Humanitarian Hotline, the phone number given for the Israeli authorities who are supposed to improve these issues, because we want to show that we will not give up. As one exacerbated woman on the end of the Hotline said after having been called at least 5 times that morning by us – ‘don’t worry, we won’t forget you. It’s not possible’. Good: we will keep calling until there is no longer a need.