Jalud, Occupied West Bank – As olive harvest season sets in Palestine, a 10-day campaign to aid and protect farmers has been launched in areas considered to be at high risk of Israeli settler attacks.
Dozens of Palestinian volunteers, young and old, arrived on Wednesday morning to the village of Jalud, on the southern outskirts of Nablus in the occupied West Bank, to help landowners harvest their olive trees – as quickly as possible.
Another group of volunteers worked simultaneously with landowners in the next-door village of Qaryout.
The campaign, organised by the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC), will cover 12 villages, mainly across southern Nablus, but also in the Ramallah and Bethlehem areas. It will bring together more than 250 volunteers including university students, farming committees, local councils, and residents of the villages.
Muayyad Bsharat, head of advocacy at the UAWC, told Al Jazeera the main aim of the campaign is to “strengthen control over our natural resources, by getting Palestinian farmers to their lands in Area C, and to other areas under threat by the Israeli occupation”.
At least 60 percent of the occupied West Bank is classified as Area C, under the direct control of the Israeli occupation army, and where all Israeli settlements are located.
“The idea was to launch the campaign in one of the ‘hotspots’ in southern Nablus,” said Bsharat. “The presence of large numbers of people on the land scares the settlers and makes them unable to carry out their attacks. When we bring 50 to 60 volunteers every day, this is a banner that keeps the settlers away.”
Other campaigns have also been launched by youth groups and popular committees for the season, which extends through November.
“The farmers will feel that they got help particularly in the most sensitive areas, where they have to pick the olives quickly,” said Bsharat.
Palestinian villages in southern Nablus face some of the most systematic attacks by Israeli settlers across the occupied West Bank, including Qusra, Burin, and ‘Urif. Attacks include physical assault and beatings with stones and clubs, damage of property including homes, schools, and cars, and theft and destruction of crops and fields.
In 2020, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) recorded 40 attacks by Israeli settlers on Palestinians during olive harvest season, 17 of which were in the Nablus governorate, followed by 10 in the Ramallah area.
Jalud and the next-door village of Qaryout are surrounded by three large settlements and a string of outposts lining the edges of what remains of their lands. The two small villages are subject to frequent attacks by settlers, who often do so with Israeli army protection.
Settlers in the nearby outposts of Adei Ad, Esh Kodesh, and Ahiya are some of the most violent in the occupied West Bank. In 2019, settlers burned some 1,000 olive trees in Jalud. Most recently in May, settlers set fire to an olive grove and cut down an electricity utility pole serving Jalud, for the third time.
Qassem al-Haj Mohammad, a 52-year-old farmer, owns several plots of land in Jalud along with his brothers, which they inherited from their father. The family’s land has been attacked by settlers on several occasions – including in one instance cutting down 40 olive trees they planted in the 1980s, and in another instance burning 150 olive trees planted by their father in the 1960s.
He told Al Jazeera that settlers try to provoke Palestinians with the aim of garnering a reaction, which they can then use as an excuse for the army to prevent them from accessing their lands. “They want us to do anything – just so they can take the area.”
The family’s struggle extends beyond settler attacks.
Qassem’s family, like many others, are forbidden from accessing much of their land in areas close to settlements, except for two to three days a year. “They allow us one or two days to plant our crops, and one day to harvest them, for the whole year,” said Qassem.
“We are not allowed to do anything else to maintain the trees, so every year, our yield comes at a loss,” he continued, explaining that one year, he and five other landowners collectively lost some 40,000 shekels ($12,400).
“Yet, we are forced to go there and work on the days we’re allowed. If we leave it, the army and the settlers will use it as an excuse to seize them,” he continued.
Qassem estimated that Palestinian farmers in the area lose tens of thousands of shekels each year because of the Israeli occupation’s restrictions on their land.
‘Always in groups’
In the nearby village of Qaryout, Rima Qaryouti and her family spent the day working on their olive grove overlooking the large settlement of Shilo.
She said she and her husband no longer bring their small children along out of fear for their safety, and they make sure to “always come in groups”.
“They want us to be afraid to come to our lands, they don’t want us to come and harvest our olives. But we always come. We are resilient,” she told Al Jazeera. “When we come in groups, at least we feel a little safer – that we’re together.”
She said when she and her family arrive on the land, they “always see the settlers come, and they are always protected by the army.”
Bashar Qaryout, a local activist against settlements, told Al Jazeera that settlers have attacked Qaryout at least six times since the beginning of the harvest. “There is not one harvest season that passes without crimes against us, attacks, arson, sometimes they beat people with sticks.”
His family owns some 20 dunams (two hectares) on the nearby hill, which he said settlers attempted to take over, including by setting up caravans on numerous occasions. He said the area’s strategic location between the two large settlements of Shilo and Eli – which Israel seeks to link together – renders it at risk of being confiscated.
“We are in a race against time, and in a struggle against settlements,” said Qaryout, explaining a majority of agricultural land belonging to Qaryout and Jalud have been designated as Area C.
Sarah Muscroft, OCHA head of office for the occupied Palestinian territories, told Al Jazeera, “[Palestinians] are exposed to increasing violence by Israeli settlers. Many are unsafe on their way to school, while at work and even in their homes. Their groves, especially olive trees, are destroyed, reducing their income levels.
“As the occupying power, Israel must always protect civilians from all forms of violence and consistently hold perpetrators of such violence to account,” she added.
‘We won’t leave’
Back in Jalud, the head of the local council, Abdullah Haj Mohammad, said such protection campaigns are important to support and strengthen the resilience of the Palestinian farmer.
He told Al Jazeera the extra help also “eases the burden on farmers and lowers the cost of harvesting their olives” because of the high price of hiring a helping hand.
Qassem, the landowner, pledged to continue maintaining the land of his that he is allowed to access, despite the yearly losses and the restrictions he faces.
He said Palestinian farmers “need international intervention” to “put pressure on the [Zionist] entity (Israel)”.
“This is our land and our right, we inherited it from our fathers who inherited from their fathers,” said Qassem.
“We won’t leave our lands for the settlers as long as we breathe.”