Palestinian olive oil production faces challenges

Friday 23/10/2015
A Palestinian hangs the Palestinian flag on an olive tree during a protest against what organisers say is land confiscation by Israel to make way for the Israeli barrier in the occupied West Bank city of Beit Jala, near Bethlehem, in September 2015.

Bari, Italy - For a Palestinian, nothing represents a stronger con­nection to his land than the olive tree.

These days hundreds of families, following the tradition, are gathering under old, majestic olive trees with sticks and nets to harvest the fruits of their orchards.

Olive is the most important tree in the Holy Land. It is considered the sacred tree by the three monothe­istic religions. But for Palestinians, this tree is more than a poetic or re­ligious symbol.

There are around 94 hectares devoted to olive tree cultivation in the Palestinian territories. There are 10 million olive trees planted in the West Bank and Gaza. About 100,000 families get a significant part of their livelihood from olive oil production.

Considering that currently the price of olive oil is around $7.70 per kilogram, one should easily figure the importance of this agricultural revenue by comparing it to the av­erage income in the West Bank and Gaza.

These numbers must not be un­derestimated. In good years, ol­ive oil production could represent around 15% of the revenues of the entire agricultural sector. No sur­prise then when Palestinians call it “green gold”.

But olive cultivation in this area is a political issue and the harvest is getting dangerous for Palestinians. According to UN office for humani­tarian affairs, some 50,000 trees were destroyed by Israeli settlers in recent years and violent attacks against farmers were reported of­ten.

The harvest is becoming similar to a battlefield where settlers and Arabs face off and where the weaker is usually defeated.

The wall Israel started to build about ten years ago, the numerous curfews, long stops at check point controls, the lack of protection by the soldiers, the barriers preventing the movement of people and goods between the West Bank, Israel and Gaza are just some of the difficulties that make harvest operations and olive oil commercialisation chal­lenging.

But the Palestinian people con­sider olive trees a symbol of their attachment to the land, so impor­tant and meaningful that they are ready to risk their lives and the lives of their loved ones to harvest the precious olives and, despite the en­demic lack of security and religious, social, political problems whose so­lutions seem still far, the harvest is every year a big feast for Palestinian families.

The expected crop for the coming season is modest. Official institu­tions forecast a total production of 15,000-18,000 tonnes of olive oil, of which 10,000 tonnes come from the West Bank with the rest from the Gaza Strip. If confirmed, the data represent a sharp drop compared to the 24,000 tonnes of last harvest. Fayad Fayad, president of the Pales­tinian Olive Oil Council, identified the causes of this negative scenario: the old age of the trees, the effect of pests and the obsolescence and the fragmentation of the mechanical fa­cilities for oil extraction.

These factors, in conjunction with obstacles caused by the occu­pation, are preventing the further development of the sector.

For centuries, olive oil, known for its qualities and health benefits, has been one of the most valuable prod­ucts of vital importance for people living in parts of the Middle East. Olive oil remains an essential part of Palestinian economy.

Huge investments will be needed to protect the heritage these old ol­ive trees represent and the olive oil they still produce but to invest in these olives will mean betting on the future of one of the few symbols of peace still remaining in the Holy Land.