After two days we had a rest from picking and engaged in some alternative opportunities to learn more about what life is like under the Occupation. At the nearby village of Hares the entire group visited the home of a much-respected Palestinian activist. In 2001, during a non-violent demonstration against the Occupation, he was shot in the chest at close range by Israeli soldiers who had entered the village. The bullet had pierced his lung and spinal chord and he was now spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Despite his life being irrevocably changed he continues to work as hard as ever engaging in non-violent resistance against the Occupation and promoting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
That evening, back in Deir Istiya, the group gathered for a discussion lead by three members of an organisation called Combatants for Peace. It was originally formed in 2006 by Israeli ex-soldiers and Palestinians, all of whom had taken an active role in the Occupation. Each of the members, one Israeli and two Palestinians, told us about their engagement in the cycle of violence and the transformation that occurred in each of them towards seeking peace and change within their region through non-violent resistance.
The next day, we were back picking olives. I spent the day with a Palestinian farming family whose olive grove was next to an Israeli settlement called Chavot-Yair, not far from Deir Istiya. There were three of us from the retreat who joined the family in two separate cars and were driven to a security checkpoint at the entrance to the settlement. There was no guarantee that any of us would be allowed access. We were told to wait and it was initially unclear what we were waiting for. Apparently soldiers from the military base, literally next-door to the settlement, had to be deployed to accompany us as security.
The harvesting of olive groves within the fenced boundaries of settlements is highly regulated. Farmers are often only allowed access to their olive groves for several days each year, during harvest times. Access to their groves for pruning, ploughing or general maintenance is usually denied.
It is also typical that men under the age of 40, being the most able-bodied pickers, are not allowed entry to groves within settlements for reasons of ‘security’. It was why this particular family consisted of a single middle aged male, a much older man in his 70’s and two women.
When security finally arrived we were allowed through the checkpoint and driven to the location of the farmer’s grove which was right next to a row of settlement houses. Three young but heavily armed soldiers accompanied us to the field and would remain within visual range of us throughout the day.
We started picking and I soon realised the experience was very different to that of previous days. This was an uglier environment with signs of destruction and forced imposition all around. Large sections of the farmers trees had been cleared and the land dug up in great strips for the construction of roads and other infrastructure. What was left of his farm was surrounded on all sides by settlement housing.
The farmer said his grove originally had 160 trees, passed down from his grandfather. Back in 2002 he used to get 2000 litres of oil from a good harvest. Now he barely gets 30 or 40 litres and many of his trees have either been cleared for development or are no longer worth picking due to lack of maintenance.
Being denied access to his grove for most of the year meant his trees were full of spindly branches from lack of pruning. The olives were smaller and much scarcer on the branches. The ground was not level and covered with thorny bushes and large rocks making it difficult to get around. It was a harsh and unforgiving environment, anything but pleasant to work in. I got the sense that this man knew full well that his olive grove and essentially his livelihood was dying and would soon be not worth visiting.
At the end of the day the farmer hoisted a large sack of olives onto his shoulders and made his way down to the road, clambering over the ditches and partially-built roadworks that now carved up his land. There was barely more than a single sack of olives and once back at the road, we waited for a security vehicle to take us back out of the settlement.
One evening during the week of picking we walked to the village’s local olive press co-operative. It was a hive of activity, the place where farmers bring their sacks of olives at the end of each day, for processing into oil. It is considered best for the quality of the oil if the olives are pressed the same day they are picked. First they are washed and any leaves or bits and pieces removed. The olives then pass into a machine that crushes them into a paste, then a second machine that separates out the stone and flesh from the oil and water that remain. The oil is then separated from the water and collected into cuboid-shaped cans that each hold about 17kg of olive oil.
In all we did five full days of olive picking, beginning around 8 in the morning and finishing at 4pm. Each of us worked with a variety of different families in different locations and under varying conditions.
For more information on the olive harvest in the West Bank and the difficulties faced by farmers in developing an economy based on olive oil, an excellent Oxfam article can be found here.