Ezz Al Din Abu Eisha & Khalil Mousa
The Independent / February 2, 2023
Local workers have joined forces with European and Israeli activists to help farmers collect their crop.
With a great deal of kindness and tenderness, Ibrahim woos the olives sprouting on the trees of his orchard; lulling them with ancient songs in praise of the fruit, songs he has heard since he was a child, as he extracts their oil from under the wheels of the old stone press he has long been using.
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He carefully observes the “old press” and personally supervises the oil extraction, from the washing of the olives to when they are crushed under huge wheels made of rocky stones, which release at every rotation the scent of pure, authentic oil that fills the air.
Ancient Palestinian heritage
Despite technological advancements in oil extraction using automated machines, it seems modern contraptions hold no sway for Ibrahim who still processes olives in a press that operates using the old stone system. It is his belief that these types of machines give the best results and produce high quality oil.
He tells Independent Arabia, “I do not think I would savour any oil that is not produced using the old presses, as it is fragrant, delicious and unparalleled. Furthermore, pressing olives using rocky stones is part of Palestinian heritage and is a tradition we have become accustomed to for centuries.”
Like Ibrahim, there are many who are still holding onto their ancestral heritage and who are passionate about using the old stone presses, which derive their popularity from their historical value to the Palestinian people. For them, it is not a question of only extracting oil but of retracing their roots and history during the harvest season.
Olive presses in Gaza
In Gaza, there are 28 olive presses, of which only eight are classified as traditional stone presses that still operate in the enclaved city according to the Hamas-controlled Ministry of Agriculture. Locals consider the old presses as part of their national heritage that must be preserved.
Ibrahim’s press is the oldest in Gaza, having been used over a century, and is usually called the “old press.” He says that he started working with it 40 years ago. His father had worked there for two decades having inherited the work from his own father who laboured the press for no less than 35 years. The press is formed of a rock mill, considered one of the oldest tools used in this field.
Ibrahim continues to oversee the press himself, accompanied by his children who work tirelessly and in unison. The process of extracting the oil seems easy at first glance; however, it takes a long time to produce even small quantities.
The process of olive mashing, known locally as “Dras”, which means pressing the olives, goes through several stages. Ibrahim explains that the first stage is washing the olives in cold water, in contrast to modern machines, which use hot water. The olives should then be transferred to the basin of the rocky wheels, which crush the olives with a force of more than 12 tons. Afterwards, the mixture is sent to electric presses, which separate the oil from the water, and finally there is a container of pure oil ready to be filled.
A profitable year
In this year’s olive season in the Palestinian territories, Gaza has recorded the best crop quality on the local level with the oil produced in stone presses inside Gaza being ranked the third best in the world by the International Olive Council, the only intergovernmental organization in the world that brings together the parties involved in the production and consumption of olive oil. It is headquartered in the Spanish capital city of Madrid.
The Director-General of the Palestinian Olive Council, Fayyad Fayyad, says that the Gaza Strip has locally and globally made a remarkable achievement in terms of the quality of its olives and oil. It has produced around 39,000 tons this season, which is the second highest number for the past two decades. He adds, “This season, olives were planted over approximately 43,000 acres of land in the Gaza Strip. Around 34,000 acres successfully yielded fruit, with a production rate exceeding a ton per acre, which means that there is a surplus to local need.”
According to Fayyad, Gaza exports five thousand tons of olive oil annually, bringing a financial return of up to $30 million (£24.6 million), to Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman, and across the world to places such as the United States, Japan and Indonesia.
According to the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture, the olive crop is one of the pillars of the local economy and one of the guarantors of food security. It constitutes 13 percent of the area’s GDP, and is thought to be worth $90 million (£73.9 million), a third is from the Gaza Strip and the rest is from the West Bank.
Fazaa: the youth group bridging divides
There are many local initiatives to help farmers during the olive season. After more than an hour of walking among thorny fields, Rushdi Dar Khalil arrives at his land near a settlement in the village of Al-Janiya, north of Ramallah, to pick olives. He is accompanied by volunteers from the Fazaa youth group. [Fazaa is a Palestinian initiative to support farmers in harvesting olives in areas threatened by settler attacks.]
Due to the establishment of an Israeli settlement near his agricultural land, Rushdi says he has not been able to safely access his land for 18 years. The scant hours he was able to spend there were not enough to cultivate it and care for it. However, this time he entered it with the group of young people working to help farmers harvest olives and to provide them with protection from settlers who are active in the villages of Ramallah, Salfit, Nablus and Bethlehem.
“In the past, I used to get to my land with difficulty and in fear of the settlers, but today I feel reassured that I have Fazaa volunteers with me,” Rushdi says while picking the olives in his land. He expresses his hope that every year there will be a youthful Fazaa campaign to help him access his land, noting that he is “deprived from visiting it and taking care of it”.
Palestinian and European activists
The Fazaa group, which includes Palestinian and Israeli youth activists and European solidarity activists, was established three years ago to protect Palestinian farmers during the annual olive season. It is one of dozens of youth groups that help farmers harvest their olives, especially in lands that are in the proximity of settlements, settlers’ roads and the closed military zones in the West Bank.
On an annual basis, government ministries, as well as public and academic institutions work to motivate Palestinian youth to help pick olives in light of the increased attacks by settlers.
Palestinian politicians, including the prime minister and his cabinet, are keen to participate in the olive harvest, which the Palestinians look to as a symbol of their ancient roots and their attachment to the land. In recent years, settlers have uprooted about five thousand olive trees worth four million dollars, according to Palestinian Minister of Agriculture, Riyad al-Atari.
Al-Atari said that the cabinet office has issued a circular to ministries to assist farmers in picking olives amid a rise in settler attacks.
The coordinator of the Fazaa campaign, Munther Omaira, explains that the presence of international and Israeli solidarity activists within the group “reduces and limits the impact of the settlers’ attacks on olive pickers”. He adds while picking olives in the village of Haris in the Salfit Governorate in the northern West Bank, “Our mission is not to pick olives, but to protect and empower farmers and break the barrier of their fear of the Israeli army and settlers.”
He points out that there are various groups including Fazaa and Al-Awnah, which have hundreds of students and government employees volunteer throughout the West Bank. Omaira lamented that the group numbers were still low, although he is hopeful more will join.
Earlier this week, landowners in Haris refused to apply for advance permits from the Israeli army to access their own lands. “We broke part of the taboo by refusing to obtain permission, and entered the land without following the protocol,” Omaira explains.
An activist in the Fazaa group, Khaled Abu Qara, said that the reason he volunteers is his desire to “lend a helping hand to the farmers, express solidarity with them and bring attention to the settlers’ violence against them”.
The Palestinian Wall and Settlement Resistance Commission is working on supporting volunteer groups during the olive harvest season, in areas threatened by further settlements.
The commission’s official, Murad Eshtiwi, announced the organization of olive-picking activities in Ramallah, Bethlehem, Hebron, Tulkarm and Nablus, in order to protect citizens from possible attacks from settlers and to provide them with necessary equipment.
This article first appeared in our partner site, Independent Arabia