Fazaa: Protecting Palestine's olive harvest from Israeli settler violence

6 min read
West Bank
18 October, 2021

For hours each day, a group of young Palestinians move from one village to another in the occupied West Bank to help local farmers tend their olives trees and protect them from possible Israeli settler attacks during the olive harvest season

It is the second year in a row that the activists have launched their voluntary initiative, calling it 'Fazaa,' which means assistance in Arabic. 

The campaigners provide their voluntary support to farmers residing in areas adjacent to Israeli settlements, located in Area C, which are hotspots for violence. 

Under the Oslo Accords signed between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel in 1993, Area C falls under full Israeli control, meaning that the Palestinian Authority (PA) cannot protect farmers from settler attacks.

"Since 1967, Israeli authorities have uprooted an estimated 800,000 olive trees, with nearly 10,000 trees destroyed in the last year"

Rabud is one such village, located in Area C near Hebron in the southern West Bank.

It is home to around 3,000 Palestinians and sits on an estimated area of nearly 2,200 dunams. The residents of the village, however, are only allowed to use less than 1,120 dunums due to Israeli constraints on land access.

Villagers of Rabud rely mainly on herding and farming, but they are prone to frequent attacks from settlers who live in the Otniel settlement located north of the town. Such assaults increase during the olive harvest season, as settlers attempt to economically disrupt local Palestinians.

To avoid more losses, activists from 'Fazaa' decided to help farmers harvest their olives and protect them from any harm caused by the settlers, according to Mohammed al-Khatib, the founder of the initiative.

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"Every time the olive harvest season is approaching, settlers attack Palestinian lands close to their settlements in order to harm our farms and lands," he told The New Arab.

"Usually, when the villagers reach their lands alone, they are attacked by the settlers, who try to expel them from their lands, where they establish their own illegal outposts," he said.

This is where al-Khatib and his team come into the picture, with the volunteers dividing themselves into three main groups.

The first one harvests olives with farmers. The second one monitors the settlers to prevent them from attacking farmers, and the third group documents any attacks against them and shares the videos and photos on social media platforms.

"Our initiative will be ongoing for 40 days to allow local farmers to pick up their harvest fully," Mohammed Mazaher, a member of the initiative and a cameraman who documents confrontations between the Israeli settlers and activists, told TNA.

The 22-year-old said they are trying to protect Palestinian lands, especially since the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority struggles to provide their citizens with security. 

The olive harvest is crucial to the Palestinian economy. [Getty]

Reviving Palestinian heritage

Mohammed Hreibat, a 65-year-old farmer from Rabud, and his three sons have been subjected to Israeli settler attacks for years. The violence often prevents him from tending to his olive trees.

But now, with the help of al-Khatib and his team, the situation is slowly changing, and Hreibat says that he no longer fears Israeli settlers. He and his wife, Saadia, can now revive traditional Palestinian cultural practices during the olive season.

"In the past, elderly women used to cook on the fire for the farmers who were busy picking olives, whereas the youths used to perform the Palestinian folklore dance of dabke," Hreibat said, as he placed the Palestinian keffiyeh over his shoulders. 

"It is an incredible feeling to spend your time in nature, to breath the fresh air, and eat healthy food prepared with the olive oil," Saadia told TNA.

"Settler violence often increases during the olive harvest season, with more than 1,700 olive trees vandalised in 2020"

"When you hear the name Palestine, you straight away think of the olive trees, the dabke dance, the keffiyeh, and the hand-made traditional Palestinian clothes," the woman said, as she flashed her smile for a group of young people eating cheese mixed with olive oil.

The couple expressed their happiness at the volunteers and their sons being able to harvest olives from their land.   

"We will sort our olives into two parts based on the size of them. Part of the olives will be sold at the local markets while we will squeeze the other part to get the oil and then we will sell it too,"  Hreibat said.

He added that the profits he gets from selling olive products will be enough to sustain his family for a whole year. "This is would never happen without Fazaa's support," he explained. 

Clashes with the Israeli army

Rabud is the third area that Fazaa have come to protect. They started their initiative this year in Jabal Sabih (Mount of Sabih) in Beita, a village on the southern outskirts of Nablus. Thankfully, they haven't experienced any violent settler attacks during their work there.

But this isn't the case everywhere. The Salfit district located in the central West Bank, for example, has witnessed multiple confrontations between Palestinian farmers, activists, and Israeli settlers.

Once the volunteers and farmers arrive in an area, the Israeli army refuses to allow them to pick olives and declare the area a closed military zone. 

In one incident, Israeli forces arrested three young men and fired tear gas towards volunteers and farmers, causing dozens to suffer the effects of tear gas inhalation.

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Tariq Abu Laban, the undersecretary for the economic sector in the PA Ministry of Agriculture, condemned the settlers' assault on farmers and their agricultural lands in the West Bank. 

"The Israeli army supports those attacks," Abu Laban told TNA, adding that "the Israeli occupation is insisting on implementing its systematic policy against our lands by allowing settlers to attack farmers and lands". 

He welcomed youth initiatives such as Fawaa that support the farmers and help them harvest their olive trees. 

According to official data, there are around 12 million olive trees in the occupied Palestinian territories, with nine million of them bearing olives. 

The olive sector generates between $160m and $191m in good years, according to the Palestine Trade Center, or PalTrade, with up to 100,000 families depending on the olive harvest.

Since 1967, Israeli authorities have uprooted an estimated 800,000 olive trees, according to The Applied Research Institute Jerusalem (ARIJ), with nearly 10,000 trees destroyed in the last year

There are an estimated 600,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, with settlements considered illegal under international law. 

Settler violence against Palestinians, which is routine throughout the year, often increases during the olive harvest season, with more than 1,700 olive trees vandalised in 2020.

Sally Ibrahim is a Palestinian reporter with The New Arab based in the Gaza Strip