Land equals life for olive farmers in the Biddu enclave

23 October 2014
Alaa Ghosheh/UNRWA Archives

“The olive harvest is a celebration for the whole family. My grandchildren get so enthusiastic that they start pulling out the mats we use to gather the olives a month before we begin,” says Abu Ra’afat, his eyes shining as he speaks about the harvest. But the moment of joy is just a brief respite in a day of frustration and anger.

It is Monday 20 October 2014 and the olive harvest was supposed to start today.

It didn’t.

Abu Ra’afat, 65, is a Palestine refugee living in the village of Beit Ijza. The village is part of the Biddu enclave – a cluster of eight Palestinian villages surrounded on three sides by the West Bank Barrier. The Barrier not only cuts off Beit Ijza from nearby cities and towns; it also separated farmers from much of their land.

The farmers’ access to their land on the other side of the Barrier requires complicated coordination with Palestinian and Israeli authorities. But even when coordination has been arranged, Israeli authorities sometimes do not open the gate. This morning’s excuse was bad weather the day before.

Abu Hatem, 75, another Beit Ijza farmer, says rain is not a problem for the farmers. “They should still open the gate, but instead they always make us suffer.”

This suffering includes constant fear that they won’t be allowed to access their land in time to harvest. Before the Barrier cut off their land in 2007, the people of Beit Ijza grew diverse crops. Abu Ra’afat explains: “I used to plant fruit and vegetables, but now I can’t because I don’t have freedom of movement to access my land. I stopped planting anything but olives because the other plants died when I couldn’t care for them. Grapes need lots of attention, pruning, spraying seven times a season. But we are not allowed to go to our land to do this. This year, I could not do it at all, so I lost the whole crop. Grapes and olives were my main income and losing the grapes means no summer income. Without this, I can’t provide the essential needs for my family. It makes me so angry.”

Abu Hussein, 52, adds: “Every year since the Barrier, we have depended on the olive harvest. There is nothing anymore except olive trees.”

Beit Ijza village council chief Abu Abed, 71, says he remembers Abu Hussein’s father preparing the land to plant the family’s olive trees 50 years ago. “I remember your father moving the big rocks because we didn’t have bulldozers back then. This land is so precious to us because we have worked so hard for it. Through this hard work, we have a built connection to the land. We wait for the harvest day-by-day, the way you wait for someone to come home from abroad.”
This anticipation turns to agony when untended crops die. 

“Watching the trees dry out feels like you are losing a son. You can’t ignore the tree. I feel hopeless because I can’t do anything,” Abu Abed says. “Even though I am getting older, if you go to my car, you will see my farm tools. I still go every day to my trees on this side of the fence. All farmers do this, because land equals life.”

The land has been life to Abu Hatem, who shared his story with UNRWA two years ago .

“I bought this land myself in 1969 and planted all those trees – apples, almonds, grapes and olives. I built it all from scratch,” he says. 

“Just by looking at the vines I would feel relaxed. When I worked on my land, I felt that the whole world was between my hands.

“The vine leaves alone would bring in 10,000 shekels a year, plus there would be 15 tonnes of grapes. We’ve had no grapes since 2007 because we can’t enter the land on the exact day that we need to plough, spray or prune. Year-by-year it has gotten worse. First it was the grapes, but now we can’t even sell the vine leaves.”

When asked how he feels sharing his story two years later, with no positive change, Abu Hatem says, “I want to explode because I feel so helpless. I feel so helpless because I can’t change the facts. All that gives me hope is God. I hope the barrier comes down and we can have free access to our land.”

Click here to read more about the Biddu enclave, here to view an infographic, and here to see a photo essay of the Biddu farmers beginning their olive harvest on 22 October 2014.