An Olive Branch in Gaza: An Ancient Tradition Brings Joy to Palestinians
The fall olive harvest festival unites friends and family, giving them a reason to sing and dance while under the shadow of the Israeli gun.
BY: WAFA ALUDAINI
Abu Jamal Abu Tuaimah’s eyes light up when he talks about olive trees and the festival that marks the beginning of harvest season in the Gaza Strip.
For a 60-year-old living in one of the most militarised zones in the world, occasions for unadulterated joy are rare. But every year come October, Tuaimah’s world becomes one of festivity and celebration. This is also the case for thousands of his fellow Palestinians. To them, the olive is not just a fruit but the leitmotif of an ongoing fight to live with freedom and dignity.
Around the olive plantations spread across Gaza, the harvest season transforms residents into bards, singers, and poets. What is usually tiring work becomes joyful family gatherings.
A day begins early in the morning as farmers and their families head to the groves and spend long hours working the branches of gnarled olive trees, shaking the fruits loose into baskets and onto tarps. They harvest by hand or with long, pronged sticks that can shear a branch clean in a single pass.
“Every year, we participate in the weeklong harvest festival. We absolutely relish this holiday, enjoying the novelty of meals with our families in the groves,” says Abu Jamal, from Khan Younis, south of the Gaza Strip.
“We divide ourselves into groups. Women prepare meals, tea, coffee and Saj bread, which they bake and cook on fire. One group is responsible for shaking the trees, others collect from the ground while others put the olives in baskets and tarps. While we work, we sing national songs and sometimes dance dabka while enjoying traditional Palestinian bread with olive oil and thyme along with the tea that has a special taste from being made on fire,” he adds.
Extending the branch until death
Palestinians consider the olive harvest to be as traditional as a Palestinian wedding. It offers revealing insights into the community’s culture and the deep connection they feel to their occupied land.
For Palestinians, the olive tree is not simply agriculture – it is directly related to their dignity and nationality. Some consider it to be the Palestinian identity card, a marker of history and even life. It’s seen in the virgin olive oil that Palestinians give as gifts and which is a staple of daily meals. They use this oil as a medicinal balm, rubbing it on the body to cure ailments. They manufacture soap from the oil’s waste; they carve curios from the wood of pruned olive trees. Moreover, they use the grindings from crushed olives as fuel for stoves.
Palestinians also use the branches of olive trees to symbolise peace. Singers, poets and even political leaders often refer to the olive branch when making overtures to cease hostilities.
Former president Yasser Arafat famously referred to the olive tree in his speech at the United Nations in 1974, when he pleaded, “Today, I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand. I repeat: do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”
While Arafat extended the branch until his death, the Israeli occupation has continued to uproot and destroy olive trees to this day.
Farmers and their trees are subject to continuous Israeli violations. Olive gatherings have taken place in the shadow of massive land-grabs by the Israeli occupation as well as restrictions imposed by Israel on access to the plots that remain.
Settlers have been responsible for ongoing attacks on Palestinian harvesters and the vandalisation of trees. Human rights organisation B’Tselem has documented hundreds of cases of settler attacks on Palestinians or their property in the occupied West Bank.
The European Union has expressed concern over attacks during the olive harvest season, calling for the protection of Palestinians and for the aggressors to be brought to justice.
“The participating diplomatic team affirmed its continued opposition to the Israeli settlement policy and its concern over the increasing settler violence,” an EU statement said. “Israel, as the occupying power, is obligated under international law to protect the Palestinian population from attacks by settlers.”
Israeli occupation forces destroy trees and plants along the separation fence between Gaza and Israel. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture, this often forces farmers to uproot trees in the area, claiming they are a security risk.
In addition, occupation forces spray toxic chemicals on vast tracts of agricultural lands planted by Palestinians in Gaza in an effort to damage standing crops.
Beyond this, the occupation authorities’ abuse of groundwater supplies has led to groundwater being contaminated with corrosive seawater. This provides yet another challenge for Palestinian olive farmers in besieged Gaza. According to UN estimates, 96 percent of drinking water in Gaza is contaminated with sewage and seawater.
Rough estimates put the number of olive trees in Gaza at 40,650; there are 32,850 fruit-bearing trees and 7,800 fruitless ones. It is estimated that olive production accounts for 57 percent of cultivation in the occupied Palestinian territories, with 7.8 million fruit-bearing olive trees counted in 2011.
In 2014, an estimated 108,000 tons of olives were squeezed, producing 24,700 tons of oil, which generated an estimated $10,900,000 in revenue. About 100,000 families depend on olives as their primary income.
The number of settler attacks, according to Israeli sources, reached 363 in 2019, and 507 in 2020, and has already hit 416 in the first half of this year. They included vandalising cars and property, burning homes, uprooting trees, and attacking people.
Walid Assaf, head of the Settlement and Wall Resistance Commission, confirms that settler crimes have increased by 150 percent this year, and were concentrated in the central and northern West Bank.
Assaf claimed that the Israeli government has ‘civilian units’ with 6,500 settlers on its payrolls to implement their expansion plans on Palestinian land. These units have been provided infrastructure services to establish agricultural and industrial settlement projects.
Israeli settlements and the apartheid wall isolate more than 600,000 olive trees distributed over 50 square kilometres of West Bank land. Because their owners are prevented from picking them, Palestinians are deprived of what is equivalent to 5 percent of their total olive oil production.
Chief Zionist Rabbi Ovadia Yosef allegedly encouraged Israelis to steal Palestinian olive crops, claiming that it was part of the Jewish faith.
He reportedly cited an old “fatwa” to back Israeli claims over Palestinian crops, giving legitimacy to settler attacks on Palestinian olive trees throughout the West Bank.
“If it were not for us (the Jews), the rain would not descend, and the crops would not grow, and it is not conceivable that the rain would come to us, and the wicked (the Palestinians) would take the olives and make olive oil from it.”