'We feel like thieves on our own land': The Palestinian farmers determined to harvest their olives despite Israeli settler violence

Olive farmers Palestine
7 min read
14 December, 2023

Almost everywhere you look in the occupied West Bank, there are olive trees. Young and ancient, they twist upwards, the bark gnarled, the leaves slender and glinting silver in the sun. Many are hundreds of years old, some are thousands.

Doha Asous, a Palestinian olive farmer, started picking olives with her mother when she was only six after her father was killed during the six-day war in 1967.

She’s now 62 and has over 700 olive trees around the village of Burin, south of Nablus, which she devotes herself to. For her, the olive tree is part of the family. “I feel like it is my child,” she says.

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Her oldest olive tree is around 150 years old. It was passed down from her grandmother, and she will pass it on to her three children.

“I am teaching them everything I have learnt from my mother,” she says over the phone, with the call to prayer echoing in the distance.

"I feel like I could die any minute, but I still go out and try to harvest them"

Around 110,000 families in the occupied West Bank rely on the olive harvest for their income. Another 50,000 people earn much of their living from working with the trees and produce. Not only is it central to the economy, but it is also an important part of the Palestinian identity.

“For us, olive trees are a symbol of steadfastness and Palestine,” says Doha, acknowledging the tree’s ability to grow in hostile environments and withstand harsh conditions.

“It’s like the witness of all the horrible history and stories that have been happening here in our village. It’s not just an olive tree, it’s much more than that.”

Burin is sandwiched between three illegal Israeli settlements, one of which, Yitzhar, is known for its extremist settlers who regularly terrorise the Palestinians living in the surrounding villages.

In particular, the olive harvesting season in October and November — a special time in the Palestinian year, both economically and culturally — has become a flashpoint, with Israeli settlers burning, cutting, or uprooting olive trees. They also attack Palestinian farmers trying to harvest their olives, which they need permits from the Israeli authorities to do.

Each year, Palestinian farmers harvest their olives under threat of settler violence [Getty Images]
Palestinian farmers confront armed Israeli settlers every olive harvest [Getty Images]

Since the Hamas attacks on October 7 and the start of the war in Gaza, Israeli settler violence in the West Bank has increased — helped by the Israeli Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir arming the 500,000 settlers who live in the West Bank by personally distributing assault rifles and loosening the rules so it is easier for them to possess weapons.

Even before this surge in violence, 2023 had already surpassed 2022 as the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank since UN records began in 2005.

“As of November 29, 238 Palestinians, including 63 children, were killed in the West Bank and East Jerusalem by the Israeli military, while eight Palestinians had been killed by settlers,” says Riham Jafari, the coordinator of Advocacy and Communication for ActionAid Palestine.

Meanwhile, more than 3,000 Palestinians have been arrested since the start of the war in Gaza.

Bilal Saleh, a Palestinian olive farmer, was shot dead by a settler in October while harvesting his crop in the village of al-Sawiya. This has created a climate of fear which has spread through Palestinian farming communities.

“Before they would beat people up, steal olives or burn olive trees, but unfortunately [since October 7] they mean to kill,” says Muna Musa, the 23-year-old daughter of Doha, who regularly helps her mother in the olive fields.

“We lost one boy from our village in the past week, he was only 16 years old. He was doing nothing, just standing in the street. He was killed by the IDF,” she says, adding that more than five olive farmers from Burin have been hurt or beaten by settlers.

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The olive trees have also borne the brunt of attacks. Doha says more than 200 of her olive trees were burnt by settlers, and she had to leave five of her olive fields unharvested because of Israeli settlers throwing rocks and yelling at them, threatening to kill them. She says that the Israeli soldiers stood by and let the settlers attack them and then threw tear gas bombs at the farmers.

“We usually make 800 litres of oil from those fields [that have been left unharvested], which will make a huge difference for us,” she says. “We wait for every olive harvest to improve our economy, to buy anything we need and to give people money. Many farmers are broke because of these unfortunate events.”

The harvesting season is usually a time of joy and celebration for Palestinians when friends and family come together to pick olives and eat in the olive groves.

“During the good times, we feel like we are going to a picnic not going to work,” says Doha. “In our culture, we cook under the olive trees, sing songs, and joke with each other.”

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Now it has become marred by violence and intimidation.

Akram Ebrahem Ali Omran, a softly-spoken 54-year-old olive farmer and neighbour of Doha, describes feeling “like a thief on my own land” when he picked his olives this season.

“I feel like I could die any minute, but I still go out and try to harvest them,” he adds. His family have been growing olive trees for five generations.

“I picked 22 olive fields and left 14 fields because I couldn’t reach them — the Israeli soldiers always catch me and try to steal my tools,” he tells The New Arab.

He estimates that from the olive fields he couldn’t pick he will lose around 50,000 shekel [£10,700].

In 2011, Israeli settlers cut 117 of Akram’s olive trees. This year, right before the harvest, they burnt 180 of his trees, many of which were the same ones that had been cut 12 years ago which he had been trying to regrow.

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Life as an olive farmer in the occupied West Bank is not easy and it is made worse by the culture of impunity among settlers.

“Every time the settlers do this, I go to the Israeli police centre here in the West Bank but they don’t do anything — I get no feedback from them, they don’t even speak to the settlers,” Akram adds.

Taysir Abasi, who lives in Qira, and is in charge of advocacy and liaison at Zaytoun (olive in Arabic), a social enterprise which supports Palestinian farmers through fair trade, says they are expecting the situation to worsen over the coming months.

Zaytoun works with around 1,400 olive farmers across the West Bank. Taysir says he knows more than 30 families in different villages who have been unable to harvest their olive trees.

“Of course, there are economic losses, but especially this year, because the olive season was not good,” he explains. 

Despite everything, Doha is still hopeful. She says she will try to harvest her remaining olive trees, even though the harvesting season has finished.

She also wants to check on the trees that were burnt — most will have to be replanted but there may be survivors.

“You can see many scars on the olive trees because they’ve been burnt many times by the settlers, but they come back to life again,” she says.

Just like the olive trees, the farmers’ determination to survive is unwavering.

Jessie Williams is a freelance journalist, editor, and writer based in London. Her interest lies in global current affairs, humanitarian issues, women's rights, migration, culture, and politics to explore the human stories behind the headlines

Follow her on X: @JessieWill5