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  • Layla Hedroug

The Politicization of Plants: Israel’s grip on Palestinian Olive Trees

“If the Olive Trees knew the hands that planted them, their oil would become tears”

-Mahmoud Darwish

Olive trees have been a key component of the Palestinian economy for years. From the famous Palestinian olive oil to soaps and other holistic uses, the olive tree has been used as a natural remedy all across the world. On a more technical note, olive trees contribute to 14% of Palestine’s economy. Since agriculture is the foundation of Palestinian exports, the production of these goods provides the population with the sustenance and support it needs. Family-owned farms carry the responsibility for cultivating the trees and pressing the thousands of olives yearly for further exportation. With the already high unemployment rate, it’s crucial to maintain these farms as it’s around 800,000 Palestinian families’ main source of income. Beyond the monetary value, olive trees have become symbolic of Palestinians attachment to their land. The trees are drought resistant and grow under harsh conditions. Many olive trees date to centuries prior to the Israeli occupation. These trees are a living reminder of their importance and their presence continues to exemplify the Palestinian plight.

Since 1967, more than 800,000 Palestinian olive trees have been illegally uprooted by the Israeli authority. In August 2021 alone, more than 9,000 have been removed, and on February 9th 2020, 50 olive trees were forcefully uprooted and destroyed in the occupied West Bank region of Salfit. These unprecedented

attacks are mainly due to the ongoing expansion of settlements in the West Bank, which are encroaching on the livelihood of Palestinian families. Oftentimes these trees are burned in front of the families, violently ending their livelihood. Beyond physically destroying thousands of trees, Palestinian farmers face several obstacles while harvesting, such as acquiring permits. In 2020, only 24% of land access permits were approved, making it nearly impossible for Palestinian farmers to access farming land year round. In the instances when permits are issued, they need to be renewed often with no guarantee of approval. Additionally, militarized Israeli forces restrict water access for the trees. Calculated attacks and vandalization of trees especially spike during the harvesting season.

The environmental consequences of the deforestation of olive trees are devastating. In any context, the removal of trees is directly linked to irreversible climate change, soil erosion, and a reduction in crops. The perennial, woody bark acts as a carbon sink. According to the International Olive Council, the olive tree

absorbs 11 kg of CO2 per liter of olive oil produced. Uprooting Palestinian olive trees leads to a subsequent increase in food insecurity, aesthetic degradation, and loss of vegetation. All of these result in the catastrophic decline in the livelihood of Palestinians. Israeli courts have failed to provide environmental justice for Palestinians, ultimately further oppressing Palestinian presence in occupied territories.

The destruction and restriction of Palestinian olive trees acts as a method of economic control leveled by Israel. By clearing out groves of trees, Israel has access to more acres of land for further expansion of occupation. Socio-economic impacts include, but are not limited to, greater crime rates, land dispossession, increased police presence, and more. Not only do Palestinians lose the cultural practice of olive agriculture, but they continue to endure a clear violation of their human rights. Just in November 2022, Israeli forces uprooted and destroyed 2000 olive trees in the Palestinian village of Qarawat Bani Hassan. It is apparent that Palestinian agriculture will continue to suffer at the hands of the Israeli government, and Israeli forces have no intention of stopping this brutal massacre against olive trees so long as the occupation persists.

Despite the decay in olive tree production, non-governmental organizations work alongside Palestinians to rebuild their lost agriculture. However, it can take up to 20 years for an olive tree to grow back and up to an additional 20 years for it to begin bearing fruit. It is becoming certain that farmers who lose their trees will be unable to see another harvest in their lifetime. Families continue to lament over the loss of their land, losing thousands of years of historical practices passed through generations. As more Palestinians move towards non-agricultural jobs, uncertainty looms for the future of the olive tree as these agricultural traditions are unable to be passed down through generations. The fate of the olive tree continues to be undetermined, but one thing is necessary: reducing the restrictions and systemic attacks projected onto Palestinian agriculture. Until then, the olive tree will continue to be threatened by Israel’s steady acquisition of the West Bank territory.

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