Olive farming, the traditional industry of Palestine, is heavily threatened. Olive oil is not only the main cash crop of the West Bank, it’s also a symbol of national pride and the deep connection that Palestinians feel to the land. Almost every family from the West Bank owns olive trees, which take up to fifteen years to bear fruit and another thirty or forty after that to reach full maturity. The work of cultivating olives is a commitment that is passed down through extended families, becoming a vital part of family and community life.
The tiny West Bank village of ‘Ayyun is a perfect example of this. With no running water, paved roads, or electricity, the village relies entirely on olives for income, supplemented by subsistence farming and herding. It may sound like a tedious existence, by for Ibrahim al Khooli, it’s the only way to live. Ibrahim quit his job as an English teacher in the nearby town of Qalqilya at the age of 45 to move back to his hometown, ‘Ayyun, and work as a full-time farmer and herder. He spends his days in the land surrounding ‘Ayyun, wandering the picturesque valley where the village is located, known as Wadi Qana.
“It’s better to be on the land, it is nature,” noted Ibrahim, gesturing towards the idyllic scene around him. His flock of goats intermingled with his neighbors’ cows as they sipped from the valley stream. Nearby, his fellow herders had found a shady spot to build a fire and were preparing a pot of wild mint tea. For Ibrahim, a life of hard work and simple pleasures is a birth right.
However the threat to communities like ‘Ayyun is almost immediately apparent. Ibrahim’s simple stone hut sits on a hilltop overlooking the valley. Houses from the Israeli settlement of Karnei Shomron are visible one ridge to the east. For the past thirty years, ‘Ayyun’s land has slowly been eaten away by settlement expansion. Land once used for grazing and olive farming has been turned into luxury homes for settlers.
“I used to take my goats there, but now I am forbidden to enter my own land,” lamented Ibrahim. “Having [the settlers] there is like a punishment.”
The farmers in Wadi Qana have a long list of problems the settlements have caused. In addition to loss of land, many of the settlers use the valley for hiking and biking. As often as not, they come out armed with assault rifles. The Israeli military has also bulldozed olive and lemon trees in key places. Representatives from the nearby village of Deir Istiya, estimate that since 2010, more than two thousand trees have been uprooted. The settlements also lack proper waste management infrastructure and leak raw sewage into the farm land. Most shockingly, Israeli plans to build new sections of its wall that would effectively annex the entire valley, separating ‘Ayyun from the rest of the West Bank. With these factors, simple existence in ‘Ayyun has become a daily struggle.
That means for Ibrahim and his fellow farmers, embracing their land and their agricultural traditions is more than just a lifestyle choice, it’s a form of resistance. By maintaining their presence on the land, they keep settlements and the wall at bay and preserve a traditional Palestinian communal economy that is struggling against eradication.
The Israeli military often justifies the destruction of olive groves by citing “security reasons”. The thought process is that Palestinian stone throwers may use olive trees for cover. The logic might seem tenuous, but this is just one of many situations where it is applied: Israel can benefit economically by bending the concept of security. On one side, gradual attacks against Palestinian farmland and infrastructure reduce Palestinian resilience and economic strength, thus hampering the efforts to build an organized resistance. Simultaneously, the expansion of industry has often been closely linked with the ongoing occupation of Palestine. The defense industry thrives on using the West Bank and Gaza as a testing ground for new weapons. Settlement expansion provides almost unlimited space for new, and highly unregulated, industrial zones. The apartheid wall, which Israelis refer to as the “security barrier” holds the Palestinian population captive, providing an easily manipulated labor force. The idea of “security” is used over and over to justify Israel’s economic dominance over Palestinians.
Naomi Klein noted in her ground-breaking book The Shock Doctrine, that in the early 2000’s, Israel was in the midst of combatting the Second Intifada. At this moment in time, the country was rapidly developing new military weapons and infrastructure, and it happened to coincide with the beginning of the U.S.’s protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The result was that Israel had a key opening to establish itself as “a kind of shopping mall for homeland security technologies.” The strategy has continued throughout the subsequent decade of on-and-off political violence in the West Bank and the lopsided wars with Hamas in Gaza. After “Operation Protective Edge” in 2014, Israeli weapons manufacturers were ready to show off a whole new selection of weapons, from assault rifles to tank shells to drones to missile defense systems. Since the blockade of Gaza keeps almost all sophisticated weaponry out of the strip, Israel can battle test their products with minimal risk.
The blockades serve other purposes as well. Israel has near complete control over what goods can enter Gaza and, through taxation, heavy influence over what can be reasonably imported to or exported from the West Bank. In addition, the population of the West Bank provides a pool of cheap labor for Israel to use as it likes. As of February, roughly 58,000 West Bank residents were making the daily commute to work in Israel and another 27,000 were working in private businesses in settlement industrial zones. The permits to work in either area require a rigorous security screening process. The threat of unemployment is a heavy deterrent to participation in anti-Israeli political activity. Another 30,000 West Bankers cross into Israel every year to work without permits, which is highly risky. While those working with permits or in settlements report low wages and poor working conditions, Palestinians who commute to work in Israel report leaving home at 3 AM, spending hours passing through checkpoints to arrive at work by 9 AM, and only returning home at 8 or 9 PM. Those who don’t have permits are even worse off. These workers report going months without pay and risk imprisonment for crossing the green line illegally.
Attempts to improve the conditions of Palestinian labor have also been treated as “security threats.” Most prominent is the case of Hatem Abu Ziadeh, who was fired from his job in a settlement industrial zone in 2013 for “security reasons” shortly after he began organizing for workers’ rights. Abu Ziadeh had held his position for 20 years before his dismissal. He eventually won a court case against his employer and returned to work, but spent a full year and a half without employment due to the accusations. His case proves the ease with which Israel can exercise control over Palestinian economic situations simply by invoking “security.”
Workers in the West Bank have little choice over accepting the labor conditions imposed by the occupation. Years of political instability, restrictions on movement, Israeli taxation of imports and exports, and land confiscation have produced an unemployment rate that hovers around 18 percent. The loss of land hits especially hard. According to B’Tselem, Israeli settlements control 42 percent of the land in the West Bank, including large tracts of agricultural land. Many in the West Bank who would choose to work as farmers no longer have the option to do so. Most of the farmers in Wadi Qana are forced to take part-time work to make ends meet, as they no longer have access to the land that once provided their entire livelihood.
Israel has expressed no intention of giving up its wall, or its settlements, especially those such as Ariel or Ma’ale Adumim that house large industrial zones. They insist that either the population centers are too big to move, or that maintaining an Israeli presence at key locations is essential to national security. The message for Palestinians is clear: their economic and political freedom will always come second to the whims of Israel’s security apparatus.
While the Israeli economy thrives under the combination of American military aid and private investment, Palestine’s economy limps along. The Palestinian Authority receives a great deal less aid per year than Israel and the aid often comes with political strings attached. Moreover, foreign aid is often used to pay Palestinian Authority salaries and pensions, rather than on-the-ground projects. Earlier this year, the European Union assembled a 15.3-million-euro aid package to the PA, exclusively for civil servants’ pay. Foreign money becomes a tool for propping the ailing government up, without allowing Palestinian politicians the autonomy to push for greater independence or improving social services and governance.
Some organizations in the West Bank are taking a quiet stand against aid dependency and economic stagnation. The Canaan Fair Trade olive oil cooperative near Jenin is one, using a combination of fair trade practices, and age-old Palestinian farming ideals to build infrastructure, provide scholarships, and guarantee income in dozens of towns in the West Bank, all without a shekel of foreign aid.
Canaan was founded in 2005, in partnership with the Palestinian Fair Trade Association, in response to falling prices for olive oil. As farmers lost both land and their ability to export under the occupation, more and more were abandoning farming full time, or all together. The Canaan collectivization project gave small farmers the ability to export and to increase prices by selling olive oil as a fair trade organic luxury product, as well as to sustainable international wholesalers. The profits go back into the West Bank communities that provide the olives, through improving agricultural technology, infrastructure development, women’s empowerment, and educational programs and scholarships for farming families.
The collective model is an easy fit for Palestinian farmers, who already see olive cultivation as a community project. Canaan encourages involved farmers to take leadership within the company, meaning that small-time agriculturalists are involved in deciding what is best for small agricultural communities and how to help farmers stay on the land. By integrating traditional cultivation practices with internationally certified organic techniques, the Canaan farmers can also maintain a lifestyle in harmony with the land they work on. Collectively owned presses have gained popularity in communities throughout the West Bank, although only Canaan combines its press with a luxury fair trade export business.
Representatives for Canaan are clear that their goals are only to expand the role of fair trade and cooperative business projects within Palestine. They don’t see their work as a counterpart to the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions Movement, which targets businesses that profit from the occupation of Palestine, or as a commentary on the economic policy of the Palestinian Authority. Yet, without implicitly saying so, fair trade and collectivization projects that defend small farmers are an indictment of the same activities and ideology that BDS opposes. Free trade agreements notoriously hold clauses that either directly attack the BDS movement, or are designed to curtail legal action that would hold corporations accountable for complicity in human rights abuses. Support for traditional agriculture is a quieter, and less politicized, form of action than boycotts, but a necessary step to protect the Palestinian farmers who face land theft, abuse from soldiers and settlers, and the slow burn of living under an aid dependent government with little means or motivation to improve the conditions of the rural working class.
The olive trees continue to be both the tangible means for continuing traditional rural Palestinian ways of life, as well as the metaphor for the practices that could eventually bring Palestinian independence. The Israeli model of development depends on rapid expansion, rapid industrialization, and collaboration between military and industry to test new products, and carve out new pieces of territory for development. The model which holds olive farming at its heart is dependent on long-term stability, collective care for agricultural spaces, and a relationship between generations of farmers and their land.
Farmers like Ibrahim al Khooli are thus forced to be custodians of a way of life, as well as a first line of resistance against settlement expansion and the slow chokehold of Israel’s apartheid wall. Ibrahim makes it clear, he doesn’t want his life to be a political struggle, he just wants to be a farmer, and is waiting for the day that being one doesn’t automatically make you into the other.