The olive harvest in most areas of the Occupied Territories began this week (29 October), following 'Eid al-Fitr. It will continue for about two months.
Olive growing is one of the most important agricultural sectors in the West Bank and provides the main, if not the sole, livelihood for tens of thousands of Palestinian families. Reliance on agriculture, and olive growing in particular, has grown substantially since the second intifada began. This results mainly from Israel 's severe restrictions on the entry of Palestinians into Israel to work. Also, following the establishment of the Hamas government and the decision of Israel and the donor states not to transfer funds to the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinians have suffered a profound economic crisis: 46% of Palestinian families in the West Bank live under the poverty line and the unemployment rate is 27%. This year, more than ever, tens of thousands of Palestinian families rely on the olive harvest and the sale of olives and olive oil. In addition to serving as a livelihood for the owners of farmland, the olive sector provides a living for thousands of other families: the laborers doing the picking, the owners of the olive presses, the transporters, and the dealers and merchants.
In recent years, two factors have caused problems in conducting the harvest: settler violence, which the army enables, as well as the separation barrier and the restrictions on entry to Palestinian land on the other side of the barrier.
In recent years, olive pickers in areas near certain settlements and outposts in the West Bank have been a target of attacks by settlers, who have cut down and burned olive trees and stolen the crops. Despite repeated complaints, the security forces have not taken suitable action to prevent the violence.
In order to avoid the need to protect the Palestinian olive pickers, the IDF barred olive picking in extensive areas of land. The IDF contended that the closure orders were intended to protect the pickers. During the harvest of 2004, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and Rabbis for Human Rights petitioned the High Court of Justice on behalf of five villages in the West Bank , demanding that Palestinians be granted access to their farmland that settlers had taken control of with IDF backing.
In its ruling, issued on 26 June 2006, the High Court held that, as a rule, lands are not to be closed because of settler violence, and that the IDF must enforce the law. Justice D. Beinisch noted that, "the closed areas are private land held by Palestinians, and their livelihood depends on their having access to it. The threat to their safety is harassment by Israeli lawbreakers. In these circumstances, closing the aforesaid lands to Palestinian farmers as a way to cope with the said threat is irrational' A policy that prevents Palestinian residents from reaching land belonging to them, as a way to protect them from attacks aimed at them, is like ordering persons not to enter their home so as to protect them from robbers lying in wait with the intent of attacking them."
However, the High Court permitted closing areas in which there was a concern for the safety of settlers, provided that Palestinians were able to gain access to their fields in those areas. "In every case where areas are closed, it should be noted that it is necessary to provide the Palestinian residents with an opportunity to finish the agricultural work on their land to the last olive." In its ruling, the High Court held that the IDF commander in the Occupied Territories and the commander of SHAI ( Samaria and Judea ) Police District must actively protect the Palestinian farmers and their property from persons harassing them.
Unfortunately, this year too, the IDF has chosen the easy way, and rather than take extensive precautions to protect the olive pickers, has again issued orders closing large areas of land. To ensure that the orders do not violate the clear provisions of the High Court's ruling, the orders state that they are intended to protect the settlers, and not the olive pickers.
The separation barrier
Since the separation barrier was built, Israel has restricted the access of Palestinians to their land west of the barrier and has required that they obtain a permit to cross the barrier. The criteria for obtaining the permit are very restrictive: absence of a security reason to deny entry, proof of ownership of the land, or an inheritance order showing entitlement to the land. Persons who do not own the land must prove they are related to the owner, have a lease agreement, or hold documents indicating they are employed as laborers on the farmland.
In many cases, farmers received permits for themselves but not for the rest of the family. In other cases, the permit allows the holder to cross only at a gate far from their farmland, while in other cases, the farmers have to submit separate requests to enable them to cross with a tractor or other vehicle to transport the crop. Even the entry of donkeys, also used to transport the olives, is subject to IDF restrictions.
The permit holders are also dependent on the policy governing the operation of the barrier gates. Most of the agricultural gates are opened for short periods of time, for twenty minutes to an hour, two or three times a day. Since the permit regime began, in October 2003, many problems have resulted from operation of the gates: they are not opened on time, gates that were open throughout the year have been turned into seasonal gates, and certain gates have been closed permanently.
Reports to B'Tselem indicate that most requests for permits made by Palestinians this year have not yet been approved.
B'Tselem calls on the government of Israel :
- to implement the High Court's decision;
- to enable Palestinian to harvest the olives on their land near to settlements and outposts, and to protect them from settler violence;
- to issue permits to all owners of farmland west of the separation barrier, to all members of their families, and to the laborers involved in the olive picking;
- to open the gates for a longer time and on schedule.