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Palestinians get helping hand as olive harvest begins

Several international bodies and local groups have launched campaigns aimed at helping Palestinians harvest olives at West Bank farms that are under threat of attacks by Israeli settlers.

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Every year, Palestinian farmers wait for October to see what their olive harvest will produce. Olives are a major seasonal crop for them, one that symbolizes Palestinian resilience in the face of constant Israeli settlers’ attacks targeting areas adjacent to Israeli settlements throughout the West Bank.

Such attacks pose a great challenge to Palestinian farmers, as they include the uprooting of trees, the burning and confiscation of land, the obstruction of olive harvesting operations and the theft of olive crops, all inflicting heavy losses on the farmers. The latest such incident occurred on Oct. 3.

This situation gave rise to three campaigns aimed at helping Palestinian farmers harvest olives. One was supported by the British Consulate staff, another was launched by the Wall and Settlement Resistance Committee of the PLO, and the “We Are With You” campaign was initiated by the Agricultural Development Association (PARC).

Hundreds of Palestinian and foreign volunteers, farmers and families are taking part in these campaigns that are being implemented across the West Bank throughout the month of October, which is the olive harvest month.

The British Consulate in Jerusalem, which is supporting and funding some of these campaigns for the third year in a row in addition to its own campaign, distributed logistical equipment to 600 Palestinian farmers in 43 local communities in the West Bank in preparation for the olive harvest season. The equipment included wooden ladders, saws, olive groves and flat sheets of plastic, among other equipment.

The British government’s Dubai-based Foreign Office Blogs said Sept. 27 that “a number of British Consulate staff and representatives of European governments are taking part in the olive harvest process, particularly in the most marginalized areas. This is part of the United Kingdom's continued commitment to ensure Palestinians' rights to cultivate their lands and condemn any activities that pose a threat to this right.”

The head of the Wall and Settlement Resistance Committee of the PLO, Walid Assaf, told Al-Monitor that the campaign the committee launched on Sept. 27 consists of three stages. The first is distributing equipment to farmers, the second is organizing volunteer work in partnership with local community institutions and foreign volunteers, and the third is sending workers and activists to agricultural land adjacent to the Israeli settlements or behind the separation wall to harvest olives.

Assaf explained that the equipment provided by the committee in cooperation with the British Consulate and many local institutions has been distributed to 800 farmers in the West Bank and will be distributed to other farmers in the Palestinian areas across the West Bank. He noted, however, that their support remains simple compared to the challenges faced by farmers due to the settlers’ attacks.

While the weekly reports issued in September by the PLO’s National Bureau for Defending Land said that the settlers’ attacks on Palestinian agricultural lands in the West Bank widely increased as the olive harvest season drew near, Assaf explained that the presence of hundreds of volunteers in the Palestinian agricultural lands during the olive-picking season helps limit these attacks. This, he added, prompted them to take additional steps aimed at bringing more volunteers this year, especially foreigners who usually start arriving in the Palestinian territories at the beginning of October on their own personal initiative to help pick olives.

In this vein, Nablus-based PARC announced the completion of all arrangements related to the launch of its 10th annual voluntary olive harvest campaign titled “We Are With You,” and expects hundreds of participants in the campaign.

Khaled Mansour, the campaign coordinator, said in a press statement published by al-Quds newspaper on Sept. 26 that “the launch of the campaign comes in light of escalated settler crimes against Palestinian farmers, land and property across Palestinian villages and towns, and restrictions on the movement of farmers in the vicinity of settlements. … This deeply affects farmers, prevents them from accessing their lands, and denies them the right to harvest and transfer olive crops safely and freely.”

Yaser al-Zaghari, a 47-year-old Palestinian farmer whose farm is close to the Givat HaRadar settlement in the northwest of Jerusalem, told Al-Monitor that the campaigns organized by Palestinians with the help of foreigners have succeeded in recent years in protecting them while harvesting olives.

Zaghari said that before the start of the harvest season, settlers cut trees in the lands located near the settlements and the Israeli army fired gas bombs containing toxic substances around olive trees during the sporadic confrontations with Palestinians. This inflicts damage on both the crops and the trees.

He pointed out, however, that the suffering of Palestinian farmers whose lands are now on the western side of the separation wall, which Israel began building in 2002, is greater than his suffering. Many of them are denied access to their lands by the Israeli army.

Dounia Shtewie, a 37-year-old French activist who helps Palestinians harvest olives in the northern West Bank town of Nablus, told Al-Monitor that she decided to start helping Palestinians harvest olives in hotbeds after she heard about the different kinds of suffering they are exposed to. She decided to show solidarity with Palestinians in the face of Israeli attacks.

Shtewie, who has been living in Nablus since October 2015, added, “The help that many foreign activists and I provide to Palestinians in the olive harvest season aims at allowing them to exercise their right to crop harvesting. We also try to encourage them to cling to the land that the Israelis are trying to take away from them.”

“I spend 10 hours a day helping Palestinians pick olives. I also document the settlers’ attacks using my own camera,” she added.

She said that as they work, she and farmers get stoned by settlers who are accompanied by wild dogs.

While Shtewie did not hide that she had concerns over the dangers surrounding her volunteer work in those areas, she said it was worth the risk.

These campaigns remain vital in reducing settlers’ attacks on farmers even if they do not stop them altogether. During the harvest season and thanks to the presence of foreigners and the solidarity they are showing the Palestinians, Israeli attacks are reduced for fear of accidentally killing one of the foreign volunteers and causing a diplomatic crisis with the volunteers' countries of origin. Meanwhile, the Israeli military continues to turn a blind eye to these attacks.

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