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Monday, 13 November 2006

Barrier clogs West Bank olive harvest

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"They never offered me any compensation. They just uprooted the trees and took them away." -- Abdullah Abdel Khatib, an olive farmer in the West Bank. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Monday, November 13, 2006
Page A - 9

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Deir al Ghusun, West Bank -- Seventy-year-old Abdullah Abdel Khatib took a break from harvesting his olives in a hillside grove in the northern West Bank and gazed out at the spectacular view across northern Israel to the Mediterranean Sea 15 miles away.

"I was born in this village," he said. "This is my land, and so I have to be here."

But tending to his 10-acre olive grove is not as simple as it used to be. He lost about 360 of his 1,300 olive trees when the Israelis built their controversial security barrier right through his land. At this point just north of Tulkarem, the barrier veers sharply away from the "Green Line" -- the border between the West Bank and Israel -- and dives eastward, slicing off several square miles of Palestinian territory and effectively annexing it to Israel.

Half of Khatib's real estate and about 300 of his remaining trees ended up on the western side of the barrier, a 50-yard-wide strip containing a touch-sensitive wire mesh fence, two barbed-wire barriers, an anti-vehicle ditch, an intrusion-tracking dirt path and a military patrol road.

"They never offered me any compensation," he said. "They didn't offer any to my neighbors either. They just uprooted the trees and took them away."

In the four years since work began on the barrier, the annual autumn olive harvest has become a flash point for violence. Many olive harvesters have been attacked, beaten and even shot by Jewish settlers who claimed they suspected the Palestinians of using their labor as cover to approach the settlements and plan attacks.

Soldiers have prevented other farmers from picking the olives even when they have the correct permits, and have beaten or harassed the Palestinians when they refused to leave. After one such incident near Nablus recently, the Israeli army apologized -- but not before the family involved had lost a full day's work.

Still, despite the election of a Hamas government to lead the Palestinian Authority and the consequent freezing of most contacts between Palestinian and Israeli officials, all sides seem to be making an effort this year to reduce the tension so the olives can be collected successfully.

In June, the Israeli High Court ruled that Palestinian farmers must be permitted access to their land for the harvest. Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz commissioned a report from the World Bank on the importance of the harvest, and ordered Israeli security personnel to protect farmers from harassment by unruly settlers.

"It is not possible to overestimate the importance of olives to the Palestinian economy," the World Bank report said. "Not only are olives the single biggest crop in what remains a largely agricultural economy, but they have deep cultural significance."

"The olive tree is strongly connected to our traditions, customs and existence on this land," said Shaker Judeh, a senior official at the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture. "It was also called the blessed tree and enjoys a religious status, as it is mentioned many times in the Holy Quran."

So far, things have been peaceful in the area where Khatib is picking his olives.

"This year, it was coordinated with Israeli forces to allow farmers to access their lands for the harvest, but many farmers are not granted permits," said Judeh. "They are giving more permits to the farmers and the owners, but there are still problems over people denied permits on the grounds of security."

Every day, Khatib and his neighbors pass large red warning signs in Arabic and Hebrew put up by the Israelis to mark a 100-yard exclusion zone on the Palestinian side of the barrier. The signs tell anyone entering the area not to carry firearms or approach the barrier without proper authorization.

Just next to Khatib's land is Gate 690, one of three crossings in the area that are opened twice a day so farmers authorized by the Israelis can tend their land on the other side. Israeli troops in full battle gear check Palestinian farmers passing through the gate.

Permits are hard to obtain, but Khatib has secured permission for his laborers to collect the olives from his trees across the barrier. More than 90 percent of the olives are used to make oil. It takes 9 to 13 pounds of olives to produce a gallon of olive oil, which his family uses or sells.

The Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture is expecting a bumper crop -- as much as 35,000 tons of olive oil, compared with an average 25,000 in recent years. The bounty could throw a lifeline to Palestinians like Khatib, struggling with an extended economic crisis caused by the continued conflict with Israel and an extensive security clampdown.

"The Palestinian economy has come to the point of collapse," said Talal Dweikat, the local Palestinian governor. "There is real starvation and real suffering among the Palestinian people. Dozens of families cannot secure their daily needs."

The World Bank report estimated that olive trees account for nearly 45 percent of cultivated land in the Palestinian territory. About 100,000 people, it said, are dependent on the olive harvest for their livelihoods. But the Israeli barrier and security checkpoints, designed to clamp down on the movement of arms and suicide bombers, also have prevented olive oil and other produce from being exported abroad. The result has been a surplus of oil in the Palestinian territories, leading to a reduction in price that has further weakened the local agricultural economy.

Khaled Alayan, the mayor of Deir al Ghusun, said the barrier had transformed the lives of the villagers "into a nightmare."

"Having a permit does not ensure that we go through the gate. It depends on the mood of the soldier whether we pass through the gate or not," Alayan said. He said unemployment in the village had risen to around 60 percent, and the municipality was owed about $700,000 in unpaid water and electric bills.

"One main source of income for this village was that many of the people used to work inside Israel," he said. "One thousand families used to depend on the income from family members working inside Israel. Because of the wall, 1,000 families have lost their source of income."

Khatib said six of his seven sons used to work in Israel, but now are unemployed.

"We can see signs of the deterioration in the economic situation because women are selling their jewelry, and others are selling property. Many people in the village have become dependent on donations from other people or international organizations," said Alayan.

Among the organizations that have stepped in to help is the U.N. World Food Program, which has targeted Deir al Ghusun as part of a campaign to save the poorest Palestinian farmers from destitution by purchasing 1,500 tons of olive oil, at a cost of $4 million.

"We identify the poorest among the farmers, and we buy a quantity of olive oil which otherwise they couldn't sell and they couldn't store, and we redistribute this olive oil to our beneficiaries who are scattered over the West Bank and Gaza," said Arnold Vercken, the program's director for the Palestinian territories.

He said such purchases helped stabilize the market price, provided a much-needed cash injection for the "poorest among the poor" and gave Palestinians receiving food aid a high-nutrition product.

The olives picked by Khatib and his neighbors end up at the olive press in the center of their village, where Yousur Eid sat watching amid a roar of machinery as her olives were ground into paste beneath two huge, rolling stones. The paste was spread on straw mats and pressed to produce thick, green, fragrant oil, which she collected in a big plastic jerrican.

"I have 30 olive trees, which I share with another family," said the 75-year-old grandmother, keeping an eye on the precious liquid. "It took us a week to harvest the crop, and I get two-thirds of it. This looks like a good year. It looks like we will have about five or six gallons of oil, and I will use it to make moussakhan -- my favorite dish of bread, olive oil and chicken. You are invited to come and eat it with us."

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