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Olive harvest in Burin: Israel stifles Palestinian agriculture

By Samuela Galea

10oa20131109023005.jpg

Photo by Lazar Simeonov.

November 10, 2013

With a population of around 2,500, the village of Burin is situated in the governate most often exposed to settler violence in the West BankŚNablus.  Between January and August of this year, 96 settler attacks have been recorded within the Nablus district alone, according the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Surrounded by the Israeli settlements of Yitzhar and Bracha, residents of Burin experience settler violence throughout the year, especially during the fall olive harvest. Burin's agricultural land has been and continues to be subjected to poisoning, burning and the uprooting of precious olive, almond and fig trees. 

Over 6,830 olive trees and saplings owned by Palestinians have been vandalized by Israeli settlers in the first 6 months of this year, 900 of them within the vicinity of Yitzhar and Bracha, states an October 2013 report by UNRWA. 

After a severe attack in June 2013, the Burin Village Council reported around 600 trees had been burned. At this particular incident, Palestinian Civil Defense forces were stopped for around 30 minutes before they could proceed with putting out the fire, receiving no collaboration from the Israeli Civil Defense which stood by, protecting the settlement of Yitzhar from any flames whilst more and more trees continued to burn. Months later, the case is still pending and has not yet received its rightful attention from Israeli police.

Under the tenets of International Law, Israel, as an occupying power, must ensure and maintain public order and safety within the territory it occupies and protect the inhabitants therein from violence. However, neither duty is fulfilled. The Israeli NGO Yesh Din explains that apart from the fact that the settlements are already constructed illegally, most of the settlers' crimes against Palestinian olive groves, some 84% of them since 2005, occur without proper investigation. Most investigations are halted before reaching any definite findings. 

A case study carried out by UNRWA last month recounts the experience of Abu Salim, a Palestinian refugee living in Burin, who explains: "By 2012, I had 125 olive trees in my grove, but in that year 16 were destroyed by settler arson. In January 2013, settlers again came and vandalised a further 25 trees causing more than 20,000 shekels (c. $5,600 US) worth of damage. I went with Israeli soldiers to show them the damage and the footprints in the snow clearly running between the damaged olive trees and Bracha settlement. I also reported the crime to the Israeli police but the experience was time-consuming and humiliating. No one was arrested for this attack and it did not prevent the next one. In August this year another 24 of my olive trees were vandalised by settlers. Why would I bother with a police report again?"

UNRWA highlights that many of the destroyed olive trees in the district of Nablus, and Burin specifically, belong to Palestinian refugees displaced after 1948. For such families, the production of olive oil is the main source of income, and thus, the destruction of trees also means the destruction of their life's work, their hope. The more their trees are burnt, the more they are forced to depend on humanitarian aid or to leave the land. Olive and fig trees destroyed in fires might survive, though it would take years until they can produce again. Almond trees on the other hand are completely lost. This creates an approximate loss of 70,000 US dollars per year for the farmers living in Burin and other such areas.

According to the Agricultural Census of 2010, the area of Palestinian land cultivated with olive trees amounts to an average of 8-10 dunums per holder. Such an area generaly takes one person about 133 days a year to take care of all necessary work relating to the grove, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN.  

Yet farmers in Burin must perform miracles, as they are only permitted a few days a year to visit, let alone harvest, all of their olive trees. In total, Burinĺs villagers are only allowed to enter their groves two times a year, a few days each June and about one week during the annual olive harvest (October-November). Harvesting time is further hindered by Israelĺs Saturday Shabbat holidays, time differences and, especially, the restrictive nature of the permits themselves. 

Farmers normally need a great deal of help in order to harvest as many of the olives as possible in the short time available. On many occasions, however, family members are not allowed to access the land and the farmers end up having to go alone. For this reason, French humanitarian organization, Premiere Urgence - Aide Medicale Internationale (PU-AMI), has created a Cash for Worker system in recent years, whereby workers are paid on a daily basis by the organization in order to support farmers, especially those in Burin and Kufr Qaddoum. Such initiatives are still sometimes blocked for several days by the Israeli authorities, but they remain a source of encouragement and concrete help to farmers and their families.

In another case study from last September, this time by PU-AMI, the past and current experiences of Burin resident Om Ayman are related in detail. Situated between the settlement of Yitzhar and the rest of Burin village, her family's house and olive trees are under continuous threat. In 2002, their home was broken into, their furniture burned, some of their animals poisoned and others stolen. Between 2012 and 2013, 50% of her trees were destroyed. After years of suffering damage, to her home, family and trees, she tells PU-AMI that she will not leave, but instead, to persevere and continue fighting. 

Even after many years, the challenges of settler vandalism and restricted access to farm land seem far from ending. Yet, the residents of Burin, similar to the villagers of the many other threatened agricultural communities across the West Bank and Gaza, draw resilience from their condition. It is inspiring to observe the whole community pull all its energy together to support and help one another, especially during the harvest. No matter what, the continuous struggle and its significance holds not only agricultural and economic importance, but social and cultural significance as well.



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