Infestation and Settlers Expected to Reduce Olive Harvest in West Bank

The 2018 olive harvest season will last approximately from mid-September to mid-November. However, a pest that infects olive trees, particularly in the norther West Bank, and settler violence against Palestinian farmers are expected to significantly reduce this year’s yield compared with 2017.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in recent years, the olive harvest has also been affected negatively by Israeli settlers stealing or damaging olive trees and by restrictions on access by Palestinian farmers to olive groves behind the Barrier and near Israeli settlements.

The olive harvest in the Occupied Palestinian Territories

The olive harvest in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (Photo: Activestills)

The annual olive harvest is a key economic, social and cultural event for Palestinians. More than 10 million olive trees are cultivated on approximately 86,000 hectares of land, representing 47% of the total cultivated agricultural area in the West Bank. Olive groves and olive oil production are concentrated in the north and northwest of the West Bank. Between 80,000 and 100,000 families are said to rely on olives and olive oil for primary or secondary sources of income, and the sector employs large numbers of unskilled laborers and more than 15% of working women. The entire olive sub-sector, including olive oil, table olives, pickles and soap, is worth between 160 and 191 million dollars in good years.

Settler Violence and Vandalism

Olive-based livelihoods in many areas of the West Bank are undermined by Israeli settlers who uproot and vandalize olive trees and by intimidate and physically assault farmers during the harvest itself. After a decline in recent years, settler violence has risen again. In 2018, by the end of August, there had been 186 incidents that resulted in Palestinian casualties or damage to Palestinian property compared with 157 and 98 incidents in all of 2017 and 2016, respectively.

Concerns persist about holding violent settlers to account. The Israeli NGO Yesh Din has monitored over 1,200 investigations opened by Israeli police into ideologically-motivated crimes against Palestinians in the West Bank between 2005 and the end of 2017 following complaints filed by Palestinian victims. Only 8% of these investigations have led to indictments and only 3% have resulted in a conviction.

Restrictions on Access to Palestinian Land Near Settlements

The presence of settlements restricts access to Palestinian land for cultivation purposes. Approximately 90 Palestinian communities own land within or near 56 Israeli settlements and settlement outposts. In many cases, farmers can only access their land by means of “prior coordination” with the Israeli authorities whereby access is generally permitted for a limited number of days during the harvest and ploughing seasons. As in previous years, many Palestinian farmers noted that the period allocated for the 2017 harvest was insufficient, that the Israeli army did not arrive at the designated time, or that part of their harvest or trees had been damaged by Israeli settlers during the period when farmers’ access to their own land was prohibited.

Permit Requirements

Palestinian farmers require special permits or prior coordination to access farming land designated as “closed” between the Barrier and the Green Line. If granted approval, farmers have to cross designated Barrier-gates or checkpoints to reach the closed area. As documented by OCHA during the 2017 olive harvest, 76 gates were designated for agricultural access. Of these, 54 only opened during the few weeks of the olive harvest, and only for a limited period on those days, and remained closed the rest of the year. An additional 10 gates are considered “weekly” in that they open for some days of the week throughout the year in addition to the olive season. Only 12 gates along the completed 465 kilometers of the Barrier open daily. Of the 76 gates, 56 require access permits and 20 operate via prior coordination.

To apply or renew a permit, the applicant must satisfy the security considerations necessary for all Israeli-issued permits. Many farmers are rejected on those grounds without further explanation. Applicants must also prove a connection to the land in the closed area by submitting valid ownership or land taxation documents. Some applicants are rejected on the grounds of “no connection to the land” or “not having enough land.” In the West Bank, the majority of land is not formally registered and ownership is passed from generation to generation by traditional methods that do not require formal inheritance documentation. The land still constitutes a major source of income for successive generations.

OCHA monitors permit applications, particularly during the annual olive harvest when, according to the Israeli authorities, “recognizing the uniqueness and significance of the olive harvest season, agricultural employment permits beyond the set quota can be requested for members of the farmer’s family.”

In the northern West Bank (the governorates of Jenin, Tulkarm, Qalqiliya and Salfit) where the majority of Barrier gates (47) and the only crossings which open on a daily basis are located, the approval rate for permit applications declined slightly from 58% in 2016 to 55% for the 2017 olive harvest, in which a total of 12,582 permits were granted. Over 10,700 applications by farmers had been rejected or were still pending by the end of the olive harvest.

Impact of Access Restrictions on Olive Productivity

Access restrictions to land behind the Barrier and near settlements impede essential year-round agricultural activities such as ploughing, pruning, fertilizing, and pest and weed management. As a result, there is an adverse impact on olive productivity and value. Data collected by OCHA over the last four years in the northern West Bank show that the yield of olive trees in the area between the Barrier and the Green Line has reduced by approximately 55-65% in comparison with equivalent trees in areas accessible all year round.

Olive Production at Risk

According to the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture (MoA), an insect, the olive leaf gall midge, found particularly in the Tulkarem and Qalqiliya governorates in the northern West Bank, has infected olive trees. Based on initial estimates, the forthcoming olive harvest may be seriously affected with 80% of production at risk. The MoA has requested NIS 2,000,000 for surveillance and the study of the biology, behavior, population density and infestation of the insect in close coordination with Palestinian universities and scientific research agencies. This money will also be used to distribute traps to prevent the uncontrolled spread of the insects. The MoA’s main objective is to prevent the insect from spreading to other areas of the West Bank through a rapid plan of action that does not include the use of pesticides due to their negative impact on the environment including the insect’s natural enemies.