Olive Groves in the West Bank Have Become a Battleground. That’s Why Volunteers Come From Around the World to Help at Harvest Time

Posted on Nov 10, 2019

Image: A Palestinian farmer collects olives in an olive grove on the outskirts of the West Bank village of Raba, near the city of Jenin, on Oct. 19, 2019.

A Palestinian farmer collects olives in an olive grove on the outskirts of the West Bank village of Raba, near the city of Jenin, on Oct. 19, 2019.

BY NOOR IBRAHIM NOVEMBER 1, 2019

This summer, Dylan Jones, a 48-year-old woodworker, walked into an art gallery in his hometown of Caersws, Wales, and found himself drawn to a collection of photographs depicting the harvesting of olives in a small village in the West Bank. He observed grey skies and golden landscapes, men and women reaching up toward the branches of towering olive trees, and piles of purple olives nestled atop a large gray tarp, spread out on the ground.

The photographs were taken by Margaret Munyard, a retired therapist who lives in the nearby Welsh town of Llanidloes. Next to the photos were a series of write ups, detailing the significance of the olive harvest for Palestinians, the destruction of countless centuries-old olive trees by Israeli settlers and army forces in the West Bank, and the risks that farmers take to harvest their olives every year. “It has struck at the core of the Palestinian identity,” Munyard wrote in her captions. She also noted the role of “internationals,” referring to the international volunteers who travel to the West Bank to assist Palestinian farmers during the harvest season—a global brigade of civil peacekeepers. Munyard had taken the photographs six years earlier, when she traveled to the West Bank village of as-Sawiya to do just that.

Jones had never thought of himself as a particularly political person, let alone an activist. His own expertise lies in homegrown timber: the process of cultivating Welsh forest trees into wooden furniture. “Anywhere around the world, it’s a fundamental right to be able to harvest your crop of whatever type. And to see people stopped from doing that, and seeing trees cut down and burnt—I found that shocking, on both a personal and environmental level,” he tells Time. “That was my link in. That was the light bulb moment.” After the exhibition, he contacted Munyard, and a few months later, Jones was on a flight headed toward Tel Aviv.

The olive harvest in the West Bank lasts roughly October through November, a festive season of family and friends coming together to pick olives, often on groves passed on through generations of ancestral inheritance. In the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, 45 percent of agricultural land is planted with olive trees, with the olive oil industry making up a quarter of the region’s gross agricultural income, and supporting the livelihood of about 100,000 families. The olive tree also has broader meanings—historically, the long-living, slow-growing, and drought-resistant olive tree represents peace and resilience for Palestinians, and also holds symbolic value across the religious scriptures of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Dating back at least 4,000 years, Bethlehem’s Al-Badawi is one of the oldest olive trees in the worlda living reminder of the tree’s presence in the region. It is said to have been named after a villager in the Palestinian town of Al-Walaja, who could often be found sitting under the shade of the tree—resting and reflecting—over two centuries ago.

Image: A Palestinian farmer collects olives in an olive grove on the outskirts of the West Bank village of Raba, near the city of Jenin, on Oct. 19, 2019.

A Palestinian farmer collects olives in an olive grove on the outskirts of the West Bank village of Raba, near the city of Jenin, on Oct. 19, 2019.

The politicization of the olive tree is evident at every twist and turn of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, including this year’s Israeli election. Days after Benjamin ​Neta​nyahu’s campaign promise on September 10 to formally annex the Jordan Valley, the Israeli Civil Administration (ICA) issued an order to uproot hundreds of olive trees owned by Palestinians in the valley right before a planned harvest. As Israeli settlements continue to expand in the West Bank, clashes between settlers and Palestinians have surged, often manifesting in the targeting of farmers and their properties—particularly during the harvest season. Over 800,000 Palestinian olive trees have been uprooted by Israeli authorities and settlers since 1967, according to research from the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem. In 2012, two E.U. heads-of-mission reports found that violent Israeli settler attacks against Palestinians especially targeted farmers. Between 2005 and 2013, Israeli NGO Yesh Din found that, out of 211 reported incidents of trees that were cut down, set ablaze, stolen, or otherwise vandalized in the West Bank, only four have led to police indictments.

In 2006, nine human rights organizations filed a petition urging the Israeli high court to allow Palestinian farmers safe access to their olive groves during the harvest. It was unanimously granted. “Our policy is to allow Palestinians to get every last olive from every last tree, even if that tree is in the middle of a settlement,” a spokesman for the ICA, the Israeli governing body in the West Bank, told the LA Times when the decision was first announced. While it was considered a victory at the time, the various ways in which the ruling has not been upheld, or has proved ineffective, has fueled an enduring global response.

For over a decade, hundreds of volunteers from around the world have traveled to the West Bank each year to accompany Palestinian farmers to olive groves in high risk areas. To Be There, the organization through which Jones planned his expedition, was formed in 2013 by a group of local Palestinians, and is one of many local and international groups who recruit volunteers for the harvest. “Their impact is multidimensional,” says Baha Hilo, one of its founders. “It’s about understanding, bearing witness, and buying time so that families can harvest as much as they can.” The description of the harvest program on To Be Theres website makes clear the protective function of international volunteers: “One of the most important roles you play during your visit is that of a witness,” it reads. “From experience, we have observed that Israeli settlers and soldiers behave differently in the presence of ‘internationals’ which contributes to a greater sense of safety felt by Palestinians. They feel more assured in the knowledge that they, and their plight under occupation, are not being ignored – that they are not invisible.”

The notion that international volunteers provide a deterrent presence to settler and army attacks is one that is echoed among farming communities and rights groups in the West Bank. “Usually, they want to improve their public image in front of the internationals, the people that come from America and the U.K., as if to say, ‘Hey, look, we treat them decently’,” says 52-year-old Mahir Shtewi, who owns olives groves near the Israeli settlement of Kedumim, in the West Bank village of Kafr Qaddum. Shtewi’s olive trees have suffered much damage at the hands of settler attacks, often before the harvest even begins. Last year, he arrived at his field with a group of British volunteers to find more than 20 of his olive trees cut down. He shared with TIME photos of damaged olive trees, their branches cut apart and scattered on the ground beneath them. “It’s like seeing your children cut down in front of you,” he said. “What can I tell you? I would never abandon it. This land is as dear to my heart as my own children are, but I swear—sometimes I wish I had never inherited it because of all of these incidents.”

Image: A Palestinian tries to extinguish a fire in an olive grove near the Palestinian village of Burin in the northern West Bank by the Israeli settlement of Yitzhar, on Oct. 16, 2019.

A Palestinian tries to extinguish a fire in an olive grove near the Palestinian village of Burin in the northern West Bank by the Israeli settlement of Yitzhar, on Oct. 16, 2019.