The olive tree is a hugely important cultural symbol for Palestinians. Not only is the olive branch seen as a symbol of peace and hope, but the olive tree is a symbol of Palestinian identity and heritage. Palestinians have grown and farmed olives for centuries and these silver-green leafed trees are part of the landscape. Olives are part of the diet, a staple ingredient and a source of wealth and cornerstone of Palestinian farming industry. It is estimated that the olive farming industry supports the livelihoods of around 80,000 families in the West Bank alone.
The olive harvest in Palestine is a celebration. It is something families take part in, and farmers take pride in their hard work and the continuation of a tradition they have carried on for generations. Olives are often then taken to olive presses for the oil to be produced, and Palestinian olive oil is a precious commodity now.
Many people from across the world sign up to help Palestinians harvest their olives, an act of solidarity in response to the constant attacks on farming and land access. If you are lucky enough to be in Palestine during October, you can spend a day or two picking olives with the local farmers or people who have trees in their gardens. It is both fun and surprisingly exhausting. Watching people deftly pick thousands of olives well past sunset, whilst laughing and joking is a beautiful thing to experience but what should be a joyous occasion is sadly often marred by violence and hardship due to the occupation.
Driving through the West Bank, the image of groves of trees cut down and burnt is a shocking and disturbing one. Palestinian farmland and trees being burnt or stolen by settlers or the Israeli Army, is economically and psychologically damaging. This direct violence upon farmers and the restrictions of movement faced by Palestinians has meant that the Palestinian olive oil industry has suffered huge losses. It has also meant that trees, some hundreds of years old, have been destroyed and these silent beautiful witnesses to so much beauty and tragedy have been cut down due to hate and occupation. In Gaza, the destruction of farmland, the expanding ‘buffer zone’ created by Israel and the blockade have crippled the olive oil industry. Exports are so restricted that farmers are unable to sell outside Gaza, and within Gaza the rising cost of living has left people unable to afford Palestinian olive oil and this has further decimated Gaza’s farming industry.
The effect of the occupation on the olive farming industry continues to take a toll on the lives of people. Farmers are left impoverished and heartbroken, families are left struggling to access land and losing out on their investment whilst Palestinian heritage is being eroded. There are some great initiatives to aid Palestinian olive farmers, such as encouraging people to buy Palestinian or fair trade produce, as well as planting trees in Palestine. These may help to mitigate some of the effects of the occupation and have definitely helped empower some local farmers and their families.
The resilience and ingenuity of farmers in Palestine is also to be commended. They continue to work, despite personal danger and continue to demand their rights and assert their claim over their land and their livelihoods. UN OCHA reported that in 2012, over 7,500 trees were damaged or destroyed by settlers between January and mid-October. This olive harvest season in Palestine has also seen arson attacks on ancient groves, settler violence and ongoing protests against the expansion of the wall or appropriation of farmland. The olive tree continues to be a symbol of hope but also one of steadfastness.