Palestinian olive harvest plows on, despite tension with settlers

The annual Palestinian olive harvest dates to antiquity and continues today much the way it has for centuries – although in recent years, the presence of settlers has made the harvest more challenging.

Josh Mitnick
Nada Salah harvests olives in the West Bank.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

As fall progresses, a heavy patter can be heard amid the terraced hills of the West Bank. It is raining olives again in the Levant, as Palestinian villagers embark on the annual harvest that lasts through November.

Families spend entire days together on ladders, stroking and tapping olive branches to release their fruit. The bounty gathered up in plastic tarps underneath is loaded on wagons to local village olive presses, where oil is extracted.

The harvest dates to antiquity, and scattered across the region are stone presses from biblical periods. With their shriveled bark and twisted branches, the trees cut a distinctive silhouette on the hillsides. Some have survived for hundreds of years.

Today, olives account for about 3 percent of the Palestinian economy, and it’s a staple in the livelihood of villagers. Most of the oil is consumed locally.

Though the harvest should be a meeting point for the different cultures of the region, in recent years it’s become a flash point for Jews and Arabs. Israel’s security barrier and the expansion of settlements have chewed into olive groves. There are mutual accusations of burning and theft. The Israeli army both restricts access to olive trees near settlements as a security precaution and escorts Palestinian farmers during the harvest as protection.

“Before it was a time of merriment and a family get-together,” said Nada Salah as she stripped a tree on the outskirts of her village. “Now it is a time of worry.”

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