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Denied land access, Palestinians miss olive harvest

JERUSALEM: Abbas Yusef points wistfully towards his olive trees, which are bearing their annual fruit. Yet again, the 70-year-old Palestinian farmer will be unable to make the autumn harvest.

Yusef’s olive groves lie on land either side of an Israeli settlement in the northern occupied West Bank. For years, he has been denied access by the army, and the settlers have ploughed it, uprooting many of his trees.

For the 1,400 residents of Al-Janiya — Yusef’s village — attacks by settlers who have uprooted trees and burnt Palestinian farmland have become a daily occurrence, he says.

“Each time I try to get to my olive groves, an Israeli soldier tells me I can’t go, because it’s been designated a ‘closed military zone’,” Yusef says.

“My father planted those trees, seed by seed, and I toiled over the land,” he sighs, pointing to one section of his land, now farmed by settlers.

This year, for the first time since 2000, Yusef was allowed access to his land, but only for two days — not nearly enough time to gather all the olives during the harvest that begins in early October.

When he got there, he found 400 of his trees had been uprooted.

UN figures show that since the start of the year, around 7,500 trees have been damaged or uprooted across the West Bank.

 ‘Now it’s my land’

Arik Ascherman, president of Israeli rights group Rabbis for Human Rights, says Yusef’s experience is common and in danger of becoming the norm in the West Bank.

“They start by preventing Palestinians from accessing their land, then they cultivate it themselves, and then they say ‘Now it’s my land’,” he explains.

Since Israel took over the West Bank in 1967, 135 Jewish settlements have been built there as well as around 100 unauthorised “wildcat” outposts, which are considered illegal under Israeli law, UN figures show.

All settlements built on occupied territory are illegal under international law.

Figures compiled by the Yesha Settlers Council show there are some 380,000 Israelis living in the West Bank — a number which has more than tripled in the two decades since the Oslo peace accords were signed in 1993.

The attacks against olive groves, which make up half of all cultivated Palestinian farmland, threaten a crucial source of livelihood.

Olive farming and olive oil production bring in around a quarter of Palestinian agricultural revenue, according to the UN’s top humanitarian official for the occupied territories, James Rawley.

The harvest is increasingly threatened by both settlement building and by Israel’s vast separation barrier — in some parts an eight-metre-high (25 foot) concrete wall — whose construction began in 2002.

Some 85 percent of the barrier’s route runs inside the West Bank, rather than along the internationally recognised Green Line, cutting off Palestinians from 30 percent of their land, according to a UN spokeswoman.

For Ahmed Diwan, a farmer who lives in Biddu village east of Ramallah, the problem is not limited to olives.

He says he has also missed the grape harvest, the almonds, the apples and vine leaves — “a symbol of Palestinian cuisine” — due to a lack of access to his land.

Diwan holds out little hope for this year’s olive harvest as he packs his farming equipment into his car.

“We’re only allowed access to our olive groves two days this year. We can’t maintain the trees or harvest in that time!”

End of an era?

Israel has granted access to farmers for a total of 37 days so far this year, the UN says.

Even those who do have limited access to their farmland are subjected to violent attacks by settlers, who are often armed.

So far this year, 88 attacks have been recorded and 142 farmers injured, according to the UN.

The elderly Yusef was one of the victims.

“About 50 settlers turned up. We were four farmers, people of around my age. We were no match for them,” he recalls.

“In the end it was the Israeli soldiers who got us out to protect us from the settlers.”

The violence is making “entire villages” which had been self-sufficient for decades dependent on international aid, the UN says.

A disillusioned younger generation is turning away from the age-old family tradition.

“Farming is finished. The young people don’t want to work on the land. They’re scared of being killed by settlers,” Yusef says. (AFP)

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