This year’s poor olive harvest isn’t just an environmental issue: it’s a metaphor for the Israeli-Arab conflict.
Israeli Itzhak Moreno holds a sack of freshly picked, plump Israeli olives, purple and ripe for the press. For the past year, he has been toiling in an orchard off the main road to Jerusalem, waiting for the right moment to harvest his olives and produce extra virgin olive oil. But the sack he holds does not contain fruit he collected. He confiscated it from thieves from a nearby Arab village who stole his fruit in middle of the night.
“We need to guard our olives during the day, evening and night,” Moreno says. “There are a lot of Arabs around here and they come and steal olives from us. This is our reality.”
Across the mountains, deep in the West Bank, Palestinian farmer Fadel Ahmed Narwajeh looks dejectedly into his half-filled bucket of olives. Above him stand armed Israeli soldiers. But Narwajeh is actually pleased to see troops, as they are there under a Supreme Court order to protect him and his grove from Jewish settlers who have laid claims on the land and have damaged his olive trees.
The olive trees are more than just a source of fruit. They symbolize a claim to the land, and as such have caused huge problems between the Palestinians and Jewish settlers.
“This year we only have 150 kilos because the Jews took all of the olives from here,” Narwajeh says. “This is our land. We have deeds. Only today the soldiers are guarding and only because the court said it was the Arabs’ land. But the Jews don’t recognize the court. They want our land.”
In Israel and the Palestinian territories, the olive is more than just the fruit one finds in a martini; it’s a delicious part of the Mediterranean diet and its oil has been valued since ancient times. But this year mother nature has provided a poor harvest, driving up both the price of the olives and the level of friction between those fighting over what few olives there are.
In Israel, the consumption of olive oil has risen sharply in the past decade. Local farmers produce some 7,000 tons of olive oil but the Israeli market consumes over twice that much (16,000 tons). Due to the cyclical nature of the trees and last year’s drought, the estimated olive oil yield will only be some 2,000 tons.
“Olive oil is not a luxury anymore; it is a way of life and a necessity in the kitchen,” says Eli Basher, a delicatessen owner in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market. “The expectation is that there will be a great shortage of olives and that the price will go up by more than 50%.”
Last year’s price was about $12 a liter. The coming season’s premium oil is already fetching upwards of $20 a liter. Imports from Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey are expected to meet the demand.
For the Palestinians, the olives are the mainstay of their economy but this year’s small harvest could mean that they too will have to import oil from Jordan to meet their needs.
The olive harvest is traditionally a festive occasion, but in the West Bank it has become a bitter season as Jewish settlers and Palestinian olive pickers are involved in frequent clashes.
Palestinian farmer Fadel Ahmed Narwajeh from the village of Sussia has been able to harvest his olives thanks not only to the Israeli army, but also to international peace activists. It was largely due to legal action by human rights groups that led to the court ordered protection of the Palestinians.
Learning from previous years and acting on the orders of the Supreme Court, the Israeli army coordinated with the Palestinian farmers and village representatives a schedule for the harvest. There are over 10 million olive trees spread out across the West Bank but even here the scale of the forces allocated to guard the Palestinians was severely cut following the drastic reduction in harvest.
With his whole family, toddlers included, clambering in the low branches of the olive trees to pluck the fruit, Narwajeh walks through his grove and points out stumps and stunted trees, which he claims Jewish settlers destroyed.
Organizations, like Rabbis for Human Rights, have joined the Palestinians to serve help them with their harvest and shield them from the confrontations.
“I feel good about that because that is an achievement of our organization,” says Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann, Field Director for Rabbis for Human Rights. “The real test of a Jewish democracy is the ability to enforce human rights…. That Jews can behave decently in their own democracy is the most basic correction of past history. And the behavior of people who abuse that or use that to attack people who are weak I find more than offensive. I find that spiritually disturbing.”
In the middle of the harvest, Narwajeh invites the families and volunteers to gather as they eat sharp goat’s cheeses and dip freshly baked bread into olive oil.
“These are good people for helping the Arabs a lot here. If there is a problem with the Jews they help us,” Narwajeh says.
Realizing that some of the volunteers were also Jewish he quickly added: “Not all of the Jews are the same. The Arabs too. We all aren’t the same either.”
Rabbi Grenimann says that the clash over the olive is a microcosm of the Arab-Israeli conflict, where normal agricultural disturbances take on biblical dimensions.
“It is about land. It is about religious faith. The settlers here are fundamentalists. They say God gave us the land. The way they understand the bible, which we disagree with of course, is that non-Jews in this area can be suffered but are in some sense second class citizens. These people don’t believe in democracy.”
In nearby Jewish Sussia, residents refused to be interviewed on record. Danny Kapach, the head of security for the Jewish communities in the region, said that the Palestinians were encroaching on Jewish land with the help of international volunteers. His comments were echoed by other residents who also expressed anger at the volunteers.
Human Rights groups like Bet’selem have documented abuse by some settlers, including burning down or cutting down trees and assaulting Arab olive pickers and volunteers.
The violence and theft, however, is not limited to the West Bank. In the Elah Valley region between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the fields are filled with olive groves and vineyards.
Itzik Moreno is glad to harvest his crop but he too, often finds his year of hard work lost to thieves.
“We’re just trying to make a living,” says Moreno as he operates a powered, hand-held rake that pulls the olives off the branches into waiting nets laid out on the ground. “Thank god we have olives and we will make extra virgin olive oil with them.”
In both Israel and the Palestinian territories it’s increasingly difficult to find traditional stone wheeled olive presses. Today, most mills are imported from Italy and produce high quality oil with grinders and centrifuges. Moreno is part of a growing trend in Israel to develop a boutique olive oil business. This is his first season that he will be operating his mill.
“The olive is very related to the Earth, to this country and nowadays a lot of people are trying to find their roots and get this feeling of belonging to the country. The olive oil symbolizes this connection of the Jewish people to this place. And it’s tasty and it’s healthy. People use it. They love it and they love to talk about it. There is a lot of buzz about the olive now. Basically it was always the situation here, we just forgot about it for the past few decades,” Moreno says.
When the olives finally do reach the mill, it’s a joyous occasion for both Arab and Jewish farmers. Because of the shortage, this year’s precious oil will be fetching double the price from last year. But with olive oil the main staple of most dishes, it’s a price people are willing to pay.
(This article by Arieh O’Sullivan is reprinted with permission by The Media Line, the Mideast News Source.)
Image via Karen Horten