Mondoweiss / November 12, 2021
Palestinians in the occupied West Bank town of Beita have been struggling to access their land for the olive harvest due to the Israeli military’s continued occupation of Jabal Sabih.
On the outskirts of the town of Beita, south of Nablus city in the northern occupied West Bank, a young man in a grey hoodie crouches behind some trees, moving discreetly through the olive groves that cover the hilly terrain.
To a passerby, Ammar Hamayel, 30, might look suspicious, like he’s doing something he’s not supposed to.
In reality, Hamayel is just trying to get to his family’s olive groves on Jabal Sabih, or Mount Sabih, on the outskirts of his hometown of Beita.
“It’s crazy that I have to sneak around and act like a criminal just to go to my family’s land and pick our olives,” he told Mondoweiss.
“I’m not the thief, they are,” he says indignantly, pointing at a cluster of white caravans on the top of the mountain, and a group of armed Israeli soldiers patrolling the area.
“We have all the papers to prove this land is ours, dating back more than 100 years,” Hamayel said. “But because they say they are ‘the chosen people’, they can just come and steal my land, and tell me I’m not allowed to go there anymore. How is that fair?” he asked.
Hamayel is one of hundreds of Palestinians from Beita who have been unable to access their land on Jabal Sabih ever since a group of Israeli settlers established an illegal outpost on top of the mountain in May.
Although the settlers were evacuated in the summer, the outpost is still standing and Israeli soldiers have maintained a constant presence in the area. And so the protests have continued, with Israeli soldiers killing eight Palestinians and injuring thousands more on the mountain since May.
So when the beginning of olive harvest approached in early October, the residents of Beita were confronted with the grim prospect that they may not be able to harvest their olives on Jabal Sabih, which is planted with olive trees as far as the eye can see.
“In the lead up to the harvest, we couldn’t stop worrying and thinking: are we going to be able to harvest our trees or not?” Amal Bani Samsa, a resident of Beita who owns land on Jabal Sabih, told Mondoweiss.
“The Israeli forces have not stopped their violence against us for months now,” she said. “So naturally, we were scared that we were not going to be able to access our olive groves.”
On the first day of the harvest, Bani Shamsa, along with her family, fellow farmers, and group of Palestinian volunteers who assist farmers during the olive harvest season, made her way to Jabal Sabih.
“Every step of the way, we were expecting to get stopped by Israeli soldiers,” she recounted. “I was holding my breath the whole time.”
Bani Shamsa said she was both shocked and relieved when the group managed to arrive right up to the border of the settler outpost, which was being manned by dozens of Israeli soldiers.
“That first day, we were able to pick our olives without any issues,” she said, recounting that the atmosphere was still “tense” due to the presence of the soldiers.
Farmers vs. soldiers
The satisfaction of being able to harvest their olives quickly wore off, however. When the same families attempted to return in the days after, they were met with opposition, and force, by Israeli forces.
“Suddenly they started to tell us that we could not be there, and that we needed permission from the Israeli authorities to go pick our olives,” Bani Shamsa told Mondoweiss.
“For the past few weeks, the soldiers have been there every day, they have fired tear gas at us, and prevented us from accessing our olive groves,” she said.
According to Bani Shamsa, there are around 60 dunums (15 acres) of Jabal Sabih that are under complete control of the Israeli soldiers, and that no one is allowed to access.
“But there are dozens of other dunums around that area that we cannot access because of the shooting, tear gas, etc,” she said.
Ammar Hamayel and his family faced similar push back from Israeli forces, who insisted that they must receive permission from the Israeli Civil Administration in order to access their land, which spans around three and a half dunums on Jabal Sabih.
When Hamayel attempted to access his land without a permit, he was faced with tear gas and sound bombs.
“A week ago, my family and I went to go pick our olives, when we arrived near the base of the mountain, they started firing at us. There were women and children with us, so we had to run away,” he recounted. “Why should I have to get coordination to go pick my olives?”
“The situation is very bad. It’s gotten to a point where, when you want to go pick your olives, you need to put your soul in the hands of another person. We are risking our lives, all for this simple fruit.”
Settler attacks increase
Like the years before it, the 2021 olive harvest in the West Bank has been marred by settler violence, and countless instances of Israeli authorities preventing Palestinians from accessing their land for the harvest.
Since the olive harvest began this October, human rights groups have documented dozens of instances of attacks on Palestinian farmers, both at the hands of Israeli forces and settlers.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), from the period of October 5th – November 1st, Israeli settlers damaged or stole the harvest from an estimated 2,200 olive trees across the West Bank.
In addition, Israeli settlers launched dozens of physical attacks on Palestinians and their property during the harvest. OCHA reported that at least four Palestinians were injured with stones when settlers attacked them in their village of Burin in the Nablus district.
In the nearby village of Yasuf, another woman was pepper-sprayed by settlers, who also stoned other Palestinians while they were picking olives.
In one incident, OCHA reported that Israeli settlers pepper-sprayed three staff of the International Committee of the Red Cross while they visited Palestinian farmers in Burin.
In Hebron a Palestinian boy was pepper-sprayed and a seven-year-old girl fell down and injured herself while being chased by settlers.
Just a few kilometers away from Beita is the Palestinian town of Burin, the site of year-round settler attacks that often pick up during the olive harvest season.
On the edge of the town, just a few hundred meters away from the ultra-right wing and violent Har Bracha settlement, a group of Palestinian farmers picked their olives, surrounded by young men and women wearing matching t-shirts with the word “Faz3a” (pronounced Faza’a) on the back
Made up of volunteers and activists, Faz3a, meaning “assistance” in Arabic, assists Palestinian farmers in “hot spots” across the West Bank during the olive harvest season. Due to the sheer volume of attacks they witness in the Nablus district, the group have spent much of the season in the northern West Bank.
“The other day, 30-40 settlers attacked one family as they were picking their olives here,” Khaled, a Faz3a volunteer told Mondoweiss. “The settlers also steal the harvest, set fire to the trees, uproot and cut down trees. This is of course all done under the protection of the Israeli soldiers who are in these areas 24/7.”
“The settlers aim to strike fear in the farmers and terrorize them so that they won’t come to their land, and the settlers can eventually take it over,” Khaled said. “But we are here to try and stop them.”
“We not only help the farmers pick their olives, but aim to protect the farmers with our presence,” he said. “So if settlers were to come down and attack a family, instead of just finding the family by themselves, they will find dozens of volunteers as well, and maybe that will deter them.”
While Faz3a has only been in existence for two years, many of the group’s volunteers, including Khalid, have been witnessing settler attacks against Palestinian olive farmers for decades, and it’s a phenomenon they say is only getting worse.
“I wish I could say this year was not as bad as the others, but it is worse,” he said. “Every year it gets worse, and we see the settlers getting more and more aggressive.”
Khaled noted that volunteers from Faz3a have themselves come under attack from both Israeli forces and settlers this olive harvest season. He estimated that Faz3a volunteers were attacked at least eight times.
“The attacks are ongoing, and they are increasing. As long as the settlers and the soldiers are not held accountable for their actions, these attacks will continue,” he said.
The harvest takes a hit
With increased restrictions on access to their olive groves, coupled with Israeli military and settler attacks, many Palestinian farmers have taken a hit this year.
“The harvest this year was less than half of what we usually harvest,” Hamayel told Mondoweiss, saying that even on the days he can get to his groves, the transportation costs alone are hefty.
“Before we used to be able to walk right up to our groves from the village, now we have to take taxis, go all the way around through different villages and checkpoints to try and come through a back way to avoid the detection of the soldiers,” he said.
Amal Bani Shamsa said her family, and many of her neighbors in Beita have also taken a hit this season due to the new restrictions.
“Here in Beita, almost every family in the village has olive trees, and everyone depends on the harvest culturally and economically. For some of us, olive oil is what we sell and rely on to support our families for the rest of the year, and now we only have a fraction of what we usually harvest.”
Both Bani Shamsa and Hamayel expressed concerns about the fact that their land is, for the most part, being left untended — something they say is detrimental to the overall health of the olive trees.
“If we can’t take care of our trees now and harvest them properly, then maybe next year’s harvest will be affected negatively, and the year after that,” Bani Shamsa said. “It will just turn into a vicious cycle.
For Hamayel, even more than the financial losses his family have incurred this season, it is the loss of traditions and customs that has affected him the most.
“I have been coming to these trees and helping my family harvest them and take care of them since I was a young boy, and my mom did the same thing when she was young, and my grandfather before her,” Hamayel said.
“These trees mean everything to us. They are a part of our religion, our culture, our heritage,” he said. “They remind me of my grandparents, of the family gathering together and picking the olives together, and having lunch together under the trees.”
Hamayel, while incensed by the injustice of the situation in Beita, says that he will not give up on his olive groves, just like the people of the village have not given up on Jabal Sabih.
“No matter what, we will not leave this land,” Hamayel said. “We grew up here, we learned here what it means to be Palestinian and what the land means to us. I will not leave here until my soul leaves my body.”
“This land is our right, we didn’t take it from anyone, no one gave it to us as a gift. It belongs to us for generations, and it will stay that way no matter what.”
Yumna Patel is the Palestine News Director for Mondoweiss
Akram al-Waara contributed to this report from the West Bank