How Israel is uprooting West Bank's future

How Israel is uprooting West Bank's future
Feature: Israeli settlers and soldiers are uprooting thousands of olive trees belonging to Palestinian farmers, unlawfully targeting a sector that contributes millions in income to some of the poorest communities.
5 min read
28 June, 2015
The uprooting of olive trees has devastating implications for Palestinian farmers [Getty]
Israeli attacks on Palestinian agricultural is costing its economy millions, with olive tree uprooting a prime target, and as settlements in the West Bank continue to expand, so do the number of attacks. 

This month alone witnessed one of the largest uprooting operations in the southern West Bank in years, with Israeli military tractors destroying thousands of olive trees belonging to local farmers.

In the first five months of this year, the United Nations recorded the uprooting or vandalising of around 8,841 trees by Israeli settlers.

"They target the olive trees because they know that around 80 percent of farmers in our village make a living from selling olive oil," Tayseer Abu Mifareh, a farmer from Tuqu' near Bethlehem said.

The olive industry plays a critical role in Palestinian agriculture, making up to 25 percent of all income and supporting the livelihoods of about 100,000 families.

In a good year, the olive oil sector can contribute to over $100 million in income to some of the poorest communities.

In a good year, the olive oil sector can contribute to over $100 million in income to some of the poorest communities

But the ongoing uprooting of these trees has serious implications for both farmers and the region.

Since 1967, it is estimated that around 800,000 olive trees have been uprooted.

"Olive trees can take up to 20 years to grow back or become productive again after an attack, and for a farmer who loses most of their trees, the impact can be devastating," Oxfam's Alun McDonald said.

The aid and development charity, which has been working with hundreds of olive farmers all over the West Bank to help them improve the quality and quantity of the oil that they produce, said that most incidents, however, happen with impunity.

"The farmers lose their main source of income, meaning they struggle to support their families or pay for their children's education or healthcare," McDonald added. 

In 2013, attacks on more than 100,000 trees belonging to Palestinian farmers cost the economy $8 million – a significant blow to an economy that is already on the 'verge of collapse' and with poverty rates in the West Bank at 16 percent.

Kasseim Mansour, from Wadi Qana, south of Nablus, is one of many farmers who has faced the devastating outcome of tree uprooting, suffering from the loss of thousands of shekels from settler attacks on his land and trees.

"I was unable to develop or rent more land to expand my business due to these attacks," he said.

Israeli settlers often attack Palestinian farmland by uprooting or setting fire to trees in attempts to intimidate Palestinian villagers and drive them off the land.

In the past five years, Israeli settlers have vandalised more than 48,000 Palestinian olive trees, Oxfam stated, 
highlighting an increase since the start of 2015.

"In January this year, the village of Turmus Ayya reported the uprooting of around 5,000 young olive saplings by settlers – the biggest single incident in the past 10 years," McDonald said.

And it seems the intimidation tactics are working.

"The settlers came at night. They set fire to ten of my olive trees, then left. The trees were totally destroyed," said Hassan Mohammed from the village of Huwwara, northern West Bank, which is surrounded by four Israeli settlements.

"Since then I have not gone back to my land because I'm afraid they will attack me and my family. I know which settlement the attackers came from, but it’s pointless to tell the Israeli army or police. Even though we live in Area C, under total control of the Israeli army, they never help," Mohammed added.

Mansour agrees, "I stopped going to the Israeli police to report settler attacks because they do nothing about it. Since the 1980s, I had filed 25 complaints but stopped around five years ago, as none reached the court."

More than 96 percent of complaints filed by Palestinian farmers with the Israeli police over the past six years were closed without anyone being indicted, Israeli human rights organisation Yesh Din found.

"We have ongoing court cases to stop settlers from taking over our lands, but the Israeli army does not do anything to stop it," Mifareh said.

"No one was ever arrested for attacking our land. The trees were set on fire, and the army came and watched us fighting the fire. They did nothing. They even refused to take our complaint to make a record of the attack."

The trees were set on fire and the Israeli army came and watched us fighting the fire. They did nothing

Many more cases are never even reported to authorities as farmers see little point in the legal system and know that nothing will be done, Oxfam added.

Israeli authorities uproot trees to facilitate the expansion of Israeli settlements and for the construction of the Wall which runs deep inside the West Bank.

Settlements in the West Bank are considered illegal – yet have continued to expand, and in the past 20 years, have more than doubled in size.

Watchdog Peace Now recorded a 40 percent rise from last year in the number of new housing units under construction in illegal settlements in the occupied region.

With Palestinians already facing restrictions from crossing the Wall, accessing their trees will be even more difficult once it is completed.

Around a million olive trees will be left on the other side, Oxfam said, and without access there will be less productivity and an increased chance of trees dying. This will have a huge impact on local and national Palestinian economy, the group added.

"It also has implications beyond money," McDonald said. "It will not only make it harder for villagers to stay on their land, but will also increase the chances that it will be taken over by settlements."

But Palestinian farmers remain defiant.

"The olive tree symbolises patience, peace and hope" farmer Ahmed Omar said. "And this is the perfect symbol of Palestinian people. We will never give up."

Sheeffah Shiraz is the Features Editor at The New Arab. Follow her on Twitter: @SheeWrites