“Behind this gate is still the village’s lands, but we can’t cross,” Imad Hannoun begins. The man in his forties leans back against a yellow iron gate and stretches his arm pointing behind him as he continues, “There are more than seven thousand dunums behind this gate, all belonging to the families of the village, all planted with olives.”
As he speaks, a strong buzz sound closes in and a large drone flies on a low height, hovering over the gate. “It’s the settlement guards filming us. They don’t like your presence,” he tells The New Arab. “They told us just yesterday that they’ve had enough of journalists coming here every day.”
For two years, the inhabitants of the Palestinian town, Mazraa Gharbiyah (also known as Mazraa Al-Qibliyah), South East of Ramallah, have been unable to access their lands freely.
Since an Israeli settler outpost was established on the hilltop surrounding the olive fields, the inhabitants of the town need a special permit to cross into the fields. The permit is given by the Israeli army only twice a year, once to plough the lands during winter, and once for the Palestinian countryside ritual of olive harvesting, in autumn.
But in late October, as the Palestinians reached their fields for their annual harvest, they found that more than 300 of their olive trees had been destroyed by Israeli settlers over the course of the last months when they weren’t able to access the lands.
Mazraa Gharbiyah’s case is repeated every year in Palestinian villages across the West Bank. According to the Palestinian Authority, Israel has uprooted or destroyed over 2.5 million olive trees in Palestinian territories since 1967. However, in recent years, attacks on olive crops have become specifically identified with Israeli settler violence, especially before and during the olive harvest season.
A cautious harvest
As Imad Hannoun moves away from the iron gate, while the drone follows closely behind, he points out; “This was not the first time that settlers attacked and destroyed olive crops, but it’s the first time the destruction has been so big.” He gazes back across the gate and adds, “I saw the first people who found out what had happened when they came back to the village. They were crying and screaming. It was devastating”.
One of those who found out was Thyab Ladadweh, a 96-year-old who had lost 150 trees in the settler attack. “I arrived early in the morning with my son and his family,'' he recalls, “we were cautious because settlers had attacked us during the harvest before, but this time they had already been there before us. I didn’t expect to see what I saw.”
Being cautious, or going to their lands when they’re allowed to in big numbers, is “a form of self-protection for Palestinian peasants”, points out Mohammad Yassin, coordinator at the olive harvest campaign at the Union of Agricultural Work Committee (UAWC). The campaign accompanies Palestinians during the harvest with volunteers, who help with their work and provide protection with their presence.
“Settler violence has a severe impact on Palestinians’ access to their natural resources,” he explains. “It basically intimidates them away from their land, which in the long run can lead to the expropriation of the land by Israeli authorities.”
A decades-long land grab
Land expropriation has been the end policy of Israeli authorities since the beginning of the West Bank occupation in 1967. Palestinian academic Majdi Al-Malki mentions in his book Transformations in the Palestinian Society since 1948 that immediately after the occupation, Israeli authorities began to issue military orders to turn public lands into ‘state custody. Then in 1980, an Israeli military order turned all unregistered lands into state property as well, effectively controlling more than 60 percent of the West Bank.
These lands were classified as area (c) in the Oslo accords, placing them under direct Israeli control. Despite becoming the growth space of Israeli settlements, they remain the food basket of Palestinian cities.
"I planted some of them in the 1980s, and some in the 1960s. I nursed them like children for years until they began to bear fruit. I spent more time in the land with the trees than at my house. I can’t describe the loss I felt when I saw what the settlers had done in our absence"
In the past, these lands were not only the food source for Palestinians but an important economic asset of Palestine. Settlements and occupation have strangled Palestinian agriculture to the point where it has lost its economic significance, but it has also jeopardised Palestinian food sovereignty, he stresses.
“Most of our food used to come from the land,” confirms Thyab Ladadweh. “It is no longer the case. When we farmed our land freely, until forty or fifty years ago, we always had something to eat at home without going to the market. We cultivated and stored dried figs, wheat, grains, vegetables, olives and of course, olive oil. We had so much that we sold truckloads to merchants who took it to markets in Jordan and Gaza when we could go to Gaza,” he details.
The occupation policies and settler expansion also caused a decrease in agriculture’s contribution to the Palestinian economy. According to author Adam Hanieh, the agricultural sector’s contribution to the Palestinian economy decreased from 12 percent in 1994 to 3.3 percent in 2015. This was also caused by the lack of protection of the Palestinian Authority, which only dedicates one percent of its budget to support agriculture.
Settlers leading the way
This decades-long process of land expropriation and choking of Palestinian agriculture has been spearheaded, in recent years, by settlers themselves, often initiating outposts on their own.
"The settler who started it all is now the guard who decides when to let us into our lands, close to the outposts, and when to close the gate"
Imad Hannoun remembers how the outpost on his village’s lands began. “One settler came from another settlement, not far away, and started his own outpost on the hilltop. Later the Israeli army provided protection and around a hundred settlers more moved in. The settler who started it all is now the guard who decides when to let us into our lands, close to the outposts, and when to close the gate.”
The greatest impact of this settlement expansion, however, comes at the expense of the relationship of Palestinian farmers to their land. An impact hardly measurable in numbers. “I planted all those trees with my own hands,” exclaims Thyab Ladadwah. “I planted some of them in the 1980s, and some in the 1960s. I nursed them like children for years until they began to bear fruit. I spent more time in the land with the trees than at my house. I can’t describe the loss I felt when I saw what the settlers had done in our absence.”
Thyab Ladadwah takes a deep breath as he strives to hold his tears and maintain a straight voice. “Trees were chopped like firewood from their bases, branches were thrown around, some dry.” A cold silence cuts Thyab Ladadwah’s sentence, while the 96-year-old gains a reddish colour before he concludes, “A lifetime lost. I would’ve rather lost a child.”
Meanwhile, in front of the iron gate, Imad Hannoun watches the sunset over Mazraa Gharbiyah's forbidden lands from a plastic chair, as the drone buzzes away behind the settler outpost.
Qassam Muaddi is The New Arab's West Bank reporter, covering political and social developments in the Palestinian territories since 2014 in Arabic, English and French. He has co-authored two books in French, Terre Sainte Guerre Sainte? and Taybeh, dernier village Chrétien de Palestine. He is also the founder and editor of the 7ara36 blog in Arabic