One of Nadi Fajjars’ fondest childhood memories is of his grandfather, wandering with a flock of sheep over the hills near Bethlehem. For sustenance the old man would carry a single loaf under his cloak, and on this bread, eaten with wild hyssop and a little fresh ewe’s milk, he would survive for days. When it was time to rest he slept under a tree. Not just any tree, however-it had to be an olive tree.
But that was 40 years ago. Nadi grew up and left the Dehaishe refugee camp of his childhood, and now lives in the largely Christian town of Beit Jala with four children of his own. Ironically, olive trees are his livelihood, as well, but in a way his refugee grandfather never could have imagined. Nadi is a leading agronomist specializing in olive tree cultivation. He has some land of his own with a few olive trees on it, and leases thousands more. On a typical day in mid-November Nadi should be out with family and friends harvesting olives. This year, however, daily exchanges of gunfire around Beit Jala make it too dangerous to go the orchards. This is much more than an inconvenience.
“Olive trees are the mother of Palestine,” explains Nadi Fajjar. “The trees, their fruit, wood and oil are part of our soul. The West Bank is dotted with towns and villages named after olives (zeitoun in Arabic)-Bir Zeit, Zawater, Zeitounia, these names are hundreds of years old.”
Palestinians cannot imagine buying olive oil off a supermarket shelf: home produced is best. And if one doesn’t have any trees of one’s own there’s always a neighbor who does. The precious liquid is given in return for help with the harvest or operating the oil press. Indeed, much of the local olive oil statistics list as “exported” is actually sent abroad as gifts to family in Jordan or the Gulf states-“soul food” providing an important link between the diaspora and the homeland.
Olive oil is at the heart of the home, Nadi explains. “Like money in the bank for a rainy day,” says Nadi, “people feel safe when there’s a few gallons of oil in the house. They know they won’t go hungry.”
This is even more important during times of trouble, he says-and this year there’s trouble aplenty.
In the West Bank the biggest olive-producing areas are in the northern valleys around Nablus and Jenin. People here have tended the same trees for generations. Since 1980, however, more than 20 Israeli settlements have been established in the area. Some of these fenced-off enclaves, connected by a network of roads which bypass Palestinian villages, occupy land adjoining the olive groves. Even while on their own land, Palestinians who get too close to armed settlers risk being chased away-or worse.
Near the village of Beit Furik, Palestinians were picking olives in their fields on Oct. 17 when four armed men from the nearby Jewish settlement of Itamar opened fire on them. Farid Nasrara, 28, was killed and three others, including Farid’s cousin Hamdi Issa, suffered gunshot wounds. Hamdi says the bullets went through a sack of olives he was carrying on his back. Although the Israeli police arrested two settlers, similar attacks and less deadly harassment have been going on for years.
Five miles south of Nablus, near the village of Burin, Fathi Abdel Aziz grows olives on five acres of land. Most of his trees were planted by his great-grandfather in the 19th century. It’s not much of a living, but he and his wife depend on the harvest to support their seven children. Half of his five acres are close by the Israeli settlement of Yizhar, home to some of the most fanatical extremists in the settler movement. He has not been able to harvest olives on his land adjoining Yizhar since 1993, because armed Israelis intimidate any villagers who approach the fence separating the two communities. Last year Fathi was hospitalized after being beaten up by a group of settlers who spotted him collecting olives a few yards from the settlement perimeter. This year he is staying well away from his land near Yizhar. As a result, half his olives will be eaten by grubs.
During the first intifada, the Israeli army regularly uprooted trees, alleging that they provided cover for stone-throwers along main roads. Olive trees were also felled as a form of collective punishment following ambushes. According to Palestinian sources, 90,000 trees were destroyed by the Israelis between 1988 and 1992.
During the current cycle of unrest this destruction has begun again. Now, however, Israeli settlers armed with chainsaws have joined the fray. Benzy Lieberman, a settler leader who lives outside Nablus, doesn’t condone the destruction of trees, but says he understands the frustration of his friends who have vented their anger on the orchards. He says the inability of the Israeli army to stop attacks against settlers traveling by road means people take the law into their own hands-and trees are easier targets than the young men who throw stones or carry guns. It takes six or seven years for a newly planted tree to bear fruit, and the settlers know chopping down trees does long-term damage to an already fragile economy.
After years of research into Palestinian olive cultivation, Nadi Fajjar sees a bigger picture emerging from the skirmishes between the trees. The problems experienced by farmers like Fathi Abdel Aziz, he points out, are eating away at the fabric of village life. “When people can no longer rely on their olives, grapes or vegetables, they give up working the land and look for day jobs.” says Fajjar. “By this process Palestinian villages have changed from being productive units, supplying their produce to the towns and cities, into pools of cheap labor for Israel.”
In villages like Burin and Beit Furik, six out of 10 families rely on olive trees for their main source of income. The Abdel Aziz family’s five acres are the average size of small-holding farmers, and in a good year his olives produce around 350 gallons of oil, earning him the equivalent of U.S. $6,000.
At best, however, olive trees give a good crop once every two years. Compared to trees in Greece or Italy, Palestinian harvests are generally poor, and there isn’t enough money in the business to spend on fertilizer, pesticides or irrigation. Only three or four times in his life can a farmer expect to see a real bumper crop, masiyah in Arabic. Farmers wait and pray for an exceptional year, for it means they will have extra income to help a son get married or add a new room to the house.
All the signs indicated that 2000 was going to be a masiyah year. Throughout the summer farmers watched the olives ripen and turn dark on the trees. But harvest time has coincided with a new intifada, deadlier than the first, and now Palestinian farmers can only watch from a distance as olives fall to the ground and rot.
Nadi Fajjar leases 100 acres of olive trees from the Armenian church and was looking forward to a tidy profit from his bumper harvest. But the 100 acres are in the valley separating Beit Jala from the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo. Since the second week of October, Palestinians and Israeli soldiers have been trading gunfire across the valley. On heavy nights the Israelis return fire from helicopter gunships and tanks, and Israeli special forces disguised as Arabs are said to lurk in the valley. Nobody wants to go down there to collect olives.
Tourist guides in the Holy Land love to point out the oldest, thickest gnarled olive trees and claim they’ve been growing at the same spot since the time of Jesus. Although botanists say this is an exaggeration, the hardy tree and its fruit have been a powerful symbol of peace, prosperity and fertility since before biblical times. Deep religious and mystical properties are attached to it, and live on in the hearts of both Arabs and Jews. How sad then, that in more ways than one, both sides to this conflict are having a disastrous harvest this year.
Christopher Slaney is a free-lance journalist based in the Middle East.