Ramallah, Palestine – The streets of Ramallah teem with traffic and shoppers during celebrations of Eid al-Adha, the most important holiday for Muslims. Tucked inside the city’s Tahta district, the hum of machinery drowns out the noise from outside and a group of men work into the night.
This year’s Eid falls at the beginning of the Palestinian olive harvest. For workers at Mahad Rantisi’s olive oil factory, the festivities are of a secondary concern to producing the oil necessary to sustain family kitchens across the Palestinian territories and abroad.
Farmers deliver their bags of olives to the factory and leave carrying five-gallon containers of oil.
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Walid Hussein owns two small plots of land near Ramallah and waits at the factory for his harvest to be pressed. He laments the lack of respect afforded to olive production by some policy makers.
“The olive is very important culturally and economically,” he says. “But the government and the banks encourage people to take loans and buy cars and houses – the money is wasted and isn’t going to the land anymore.”
Despite the activity inside the factory, the yield from this year’s harvest is expected to be significantly lower than the previous year, causing prices to rise to nearly $8 per litre.
“Last year my olives made six gallons of oil and this year I expect to get two,” Hussein says, shrugging his shoulders.
More than 100,000 families in the West Bank depend on olive oil production to some extent, according to the World Bank, but nobody in the factory seems overly concerned: Palestinian lore dictates that a poor harvest in one year will be followed by a bountiful crop in the next.
Waleed Assaf, the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) minister for agriculture, said that the entire national store of olives will be sold with this year’s harvest in order to satisfy local consumption and maintain a market for exported oil.
Assaf told Al Jazeera that in a good year the West Bank produces around 30,000 tonnes of olive oil, and 60,000-70,000 tonnes of olives – but that production is severely impeded by Israel’s occupation.
The Israeli army often destroys olive trees near Israeli settlements and the separation wall, and groves are also subject to attacks by settlers. In the 60 percent of the West Bank under direct Israeli military and civil control – known as Area C – farmers may only access land during arbitrary times authorised by the military.
“Farmers receive between three and eight days permission to pick, and are not allowed to work in the cool hours on the day – only between eight in the morning and three in the afternoon – and if there are any local security incidents the picking is cancelled,” Assaf said. “Some villages don’t receive their permit until after October 15, and when they get to the land they find the settlers have stolen everything. Settlers have the right to move freely in our land, but we don’t have the same rights.”
He says that in 2012, the PA had to establish a fund to compensate farmers for losses caused by settlements.
Meanwhile, many Palestinians face economic hardship. Twenty-two percent of the population is unemployed across the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Authority, the largest employer in the occupied Palestinian territories, remains dependent on donors to function. Last year, a budget crisis resulting from withheld donor funds and Israeli-controlled tax revenue led to the resignation of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
In a report released earlier this month, the World Bank estimated the Palestinian economy would grow by $3.4bn – equivalent to more than one-third of its GDP – if Israeli restrictions were lifted in Area C.
Agriculture accounts for one-quarter of the Palestinian economy and olive production forms the basis of the industry, with nearly half of cultivated land planted with olive trees, which can survive the long, dry summers without irrigation. The report shows that while olives form the major crop for West Bank Palestinians, the irrigated settlements only depend on the crop for five percent of their agricultural output and have established successful export markets for pomegranates and almonds. The United Nations estimates that settlements consume six times more water than Palestinian villages.
“They are stealing our water,” says Assaf, a native of Qalqilya, where the winding path of Israel’s separation wall cuts many farmers off from direct access to their land.
If we lose this land, we will lose the last remaining agricultural land available to Beit Jala.
‘They are taking our resources’
In the Cremisan Valley, which lies between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo top the hills overlooking one side of the valley. Watching the cars move about in the distance, Nael Salman stands on the other side, among a stretch of olive trees belonging to residents of nearby Beit Jala. Salman, the town’s mayor, turns around to indicate Israel’s planned route for the separation wall with his outstretched arm. It moves across the crest of the valley – which will be completely separated from Beit Jala.
“If we lose this land, we will lose the last remaining agricultural land available to Beit Jala,” he says, adding that the village lands have shrunk from 3,400 acres to 740.
Beyond the olive groves sit a Catholic convent and monastery that will also be affected. Salman and the local clergy have attempted to gain support from the Vatican and the international community to raise pressure on Israel to reroute the wall.
At an event held on Saturday to begin the olive harvest in the Cremisan Valley, senior Palestinian Liberation Organisation member Nabil Shaath said Palestinians could not afford to lose any more land.
“They are taking our resources, and the land and water are our most important resources,” he said. “The World Bank is just stating or understating the obvious. The peace process is what happens on the ground, and not in negotiations. You can see what’s happening here.”