Climate change sours Gaza’s olive harvest

Volunteers help Palestinian farmers and families pick olives during the harvest season in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip (Ashraf Amra - APA Images)

MEE Staff

Tareq S. Hajjaj

Mondoweiss  /  November 10, 2021

The olive harvest in Gaza was down by 65% this year, leaving many farmers without enough crop to sell. Experts say this dip was due to rising temperatures from climate change.

At daybreak Ramzi Hamed, his two brothers, and their three sons piled into a dusty minivan hauling a flatbed with ladders and plastic tarps and drove north. Autumn is known as pleasure-full days for Palestinian families who own olive trees and the Hameds own 100 acres filled with trees near Wadi Gaza, a lush wetland at the upper end of the Gaza Strip. Once he arrived at the orchard on a warm day last month, he met up with “over 50 to 60 people who were working together” from his extended family. They hoisted the ladders up to high bushy branches to pluck and shake loose ripe fruits. Then, they collected the tiny green pellets from a tarp on the ground that was stretched out like a bib around the trunk. 

“Olive is a symbol of Palestine, it is ancient, kind, and linked to our culture and heritage,” the 40-years old farmer said. “My parents and grandparents worked and cared for this land because when it gives, it gives generously.” 

“I have learned that trees are sensitive like humans, they feel and live the conditions their owners live, the past year was not very good for Gaza, so the harvesting is poor too.”

Ramzi Hamed

“I have learned that trees are sensitive like humans, they feel and live the conditions their owners live, the past year was not very good for Gaza, so the harvesting is poor too,” Hamed said.  

This year the olive harvest season was much shorter in Gaza, ending about a month early in October with only around a third of the yield in past years. The culprit, experts point to extreme temperatures from climate change.  

“The climate change that affected the olives happened last December and January,” said Adham al-Bassiouni, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Agriculture. “Olives need temperature regularity and that did not happen.”

Last year, olives and the oil produced from them provided all of Gaza’s domestic needs. But this year the Ministry of Agriculture said the harvest is 65% lower and Gaza will need to import oil from the West Bank to meet domestic demand. Although, the West Bank is also facing olive shortages as well.  

“This is not a permanent situation for olives,” Al-Bassiouni said. “Next year the harvest will be fine as usual and we will export our harvest.”

Of the 40,000 acres where olives grow in Gaza, this year the harvest produced 26,237 tons of olives and 4,200 tons of oil.

“Just a couple of years ago, our land was producing 150-200 tons of olives, each pound sold for NIS 15-25, which is equal to $5-9,” Hamed said. “This amount of olives produces 2,000 gallons of olive oil.” Yet this year, “the harvest this season produced only 25 tons of olives, and this amount made 300 gallons of oil.”

Hamed typically sells his first batch to neighbors and relatives who place advance orders. Then, the balance is sold at local markets.

“In previous years, the harvest was sold out before we started picking. People used to order huge amounts of olives and oil for the year,” Hamed said. “They did it to guarantee that they had fresh oil for the year. It is important for Palestinian families to have olive oil in their homes.”

“One gallon is enough for a family for the year, but now not every family can afford it,” he explained. 

Ahmed Ali, 62, farms a stretch of two acres brimming with 10 different types of trees—lemon, pomegranate, almond, and olive. In total, he has 19 olive trees.  Ali lives in the dense Shuja’iyya neighborhood and his land is just a short walk from his front door. In recent years he earned $8,000 from selling from the harvest, but this year the value of his haul was only $1,600.  

“Every year I sell olives and oil to relatives and people who know me,” Ali said. “This year I did not sell anything, all the olives I got from the land was just enough for my family for the year, we can’t keep our home empty of olive and its oil.”

Nearby in a grocery store Hani Saleh, a father of eight young children searched for olive oil. “The price is so high, I can’t offer olive oil or olives for the year.” 

Before leaving the market empty-handed he mused, “I may come back and get a few of them to give my family a tasting of it.”

Tareq S. Hajjaj is the Mondoweiss Gaza Correspondent, and a member of Palestinian Writers Union