Olive harvest brings unease to West Bank

aboud, west bank  |  Wearing a white hat with a flap to protect his neck from the hot sun, 57-year-old Khalil Muallem climbs on a stepladder and disappears into the green leafy branches of an olive tree. He carefully plucks the black pieces off ruit by hand, dropping them one by one into a bucket. His family owns 100 trees in this village northwest of Ramallah, from which they will produce around 375 quarts of oil, most of it for their own use.

During the next few weeks, olive pickers will fan out across the West Bank for the main agricultural event of the year — the olive harvest. According to government statistics, Palestinians produce between 18,000 and 30,000 tons of olive oil each year. About 3,000 tons are exported, mostly to the Gulf States.

What makes Muallem different is that while he is originally from Aboud, he now lives in Ontario, Canada, and tries to come back to the West Bank every October to help out.

Khalil Muallem returns to the West Bank from Canada to harvest his family’s olives. photo/tml photos-linda gradstein

“I want to see my family and to participate in the olive harvest,” he said. “It’s very hard work, but we care about the trees.”

This small village of 2,000 residents is half-Christian and half-Muslim. Muallem says relations between the two groups are good, but he worries that religion can breed fanaticism as it has in other parts of the Arab world.

“People need to be more educated and put religion behind them,” he says. “The Christian minority here sometimes has a difficult time. We used to be 50 percent of the population in the West Bank, now we’re 1 percent.”

Muallem studied business at nearby Bir Zeit University and spent decades working in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. In 2001, he moved to Canada to pursue new opportunities. He opened a Mediterranean grocery selling halal meat, which is slaughtered according to Islamic law, but he recently sold the shop.

Nearby, some farmers spread a black canvas tarp under the trees and hit the branches with sticks to jar the olives free. That’s faster, says Muallem, but it can damage the branches. That’s why he prefers the old-fashioned way, even if it takes longer.

Just a few hundred yards away is the Jewish community of Beit Aryeh. A bulldozer is clearing land for the security barrier that Israel is building in and around the West Bank.

Muallem says Beit Aryeh’s residents are “not the radical ones” and they have not attacked any of his trees. But he accuses the Israeli government of having confiscated about 12 acres of his family’s land to build the security barrier.

Palestinians charge Jewish residents of the West Bank with launching dozens of attacks against olive groves in the previous week alone. In Nablus, they claim that 120 trees were burned down in one day. In other cases, they allege that Jews fired guns at Palestinians, and when they ran away, stole the olives they had been picking.

“Thousands of acres of olive trees are either behind the [barrier] wall, or next to settlements, and often we can’t get permits to pick there,” said Waleed Assaf, minister of agriculture in the Palestinian Authority. “And the Israeli army doesn’t do anything to stop it; they just protect the settlers.”

For their part, the Palestinians’ Jewish neighbors claim that the Palestinians are stealing olives from the Israeli-owned trees; the settlers have created a website to record the thefts.

The Israeli army says it is doing everything possible to ensure a peaceful olive harvest.

“The army, the Civil Administration and other relevant organizations are taking every possible effort to secure the olive harvest,” said Israeli army spokesman Eytan Buchman. “These measures include coordination meetings, both internally and with Palestinian counterparts, as well as determining specific areas which have proven to be problematic in the past. We will continue to work together with the relevant factors to ensure the safety of all local residents.”

Back in Aboud, Muallem has finished picking from one tree and is moving on to the next. The harvest is pretty good so far, he says. Tomorrow, he will send what he has picked to the crushing house in the village, where for a small percentage, they will turn his olives into oil. Some of the harvest, he says, he will pickle at home.