There's a parallel war raging in the West Bank, says Abbas Melhem, Executive Director of the Palestinian Farmers' Union
It's olive harvesting season in Palestine, where 110,000 families live from the production of olive oil, and another 50,000 families work on olive farms to ensure their food security. Now, faced with growing settler violence and blockaded roads, to harvest olives is to risk your life.
2 November, 2023
It is nearly impossible to take your eyes off the current atrocities in Gaza. But as the war rages on, rising violence in the West Bank is threatening the lives and livelihoods of Palestinian farmers, their families and communities.
Before the war, the Palestinian Farmers' Union (PFU) was already fighting to defend and protect their farmers' rights against land grabbing, annexation and confiscation. Through projects to enhance access to land -- for example, rehabilitating agricultural roads and installing transitional water pipelines -- the PFU encouraged farmers to cultivate. Projects supporting land cultivation not only increased food security but also protected the land; at least in theory, cultivated land cannot be confiscated according to law.
Now, escalating violence and blocked roads mean that both the PFU and its farmer constituents have all but halted work during the most important time of the year: olive harvesting season. This will have catastrophic consequences for a community whose economic livelihood still depends almost entirely on agriculture and whose biggest agricultural crop is olives.
ILC talked to PFU Executive Director Abbas Melhem. He told us that while the world turns its attention to Gaza, Israeli settlers in the West Bank -- backed both by the army and the government -- have launched a parallel war. Their end goal, per Melhem, is the violent displacement of Palestinian farmer communities.
Read excerpts from our conversation with Melhem below. A full interview transcript is also available for downloading.
Abbas, we are hearing so much about the war in Gaza. What’s going on in the West Bank?
There is another form of war happening in the West Bank, which is a war about forcing people to leave their land, with clear plans from settlers who are fully backed by the army and fully backed by their leaders in government. [They] are distributing machine guns among settlers.
Those [same] machine guns were used three days ago to kill our farmer in Al Saweyah while he was harvesting his olives. In the Jordan Valley area, our farmers have reported that they are unable to move outside because they are consistently and systematically attacked by settlers who are preventing them from accessing their grazing areas. They are even attacking them in their tents during the night. It's triply [horrifying] for kids to wake up in the night with those settlers attacking and threatening to burn them, threatening even to slaughter them. Many of the farmers’ animals were killed, attacked or stolen. Their agricultural projects were also destroyed and they have been receiving messages from settlers that say, “You have to leave. This land is not yours.”
The problem is that these messages are also conveyed by the army. One of our farmers in Sinjjil town near Ramallah – while harvesting his olives – was told by the army, "You don't need to be here anymore." He said, “No, this is my land and I'm just harvesting my olives.” [They] said, “No, this is not your land, it's our land.” This was a soldier saying that. This means that the plan to force Palestinians to leave is something led by settlers but backed by the army as well.
How is the war affecting the olive harvest and what are the implications?
There are 110,000 families who live on the production of olive oil from the olive farms and another 50,000 families who live, working in these farmlands to ensure their food security needs. Because of the war in Gaza, most of our farmer families are unable to access and harvest their olives. I have an olive farm in my town in the Janin area. The family that harvests my olive farm every year, this year they were attacked by settlers. They were beaten, they were harassed, they were hospitalized. They were asked not to come back to harvest my olive farm.
In Gaza unfortunately, the entire agriculture sector has been completely destroyed, which means thousands of farmers who were economically independent will become relief recipients. Many of them died. All of them lost their agricultural projects, irrigation networks, and transitional pipelines.
Even before the war, cultivating your land in Palestine was seen as a form of resistance. Can you contextualize that?
It seems here [the rule] is different from any other place in this world. In Palestine, it's not enough to own land or a certificate that says you own that land. Accessing that land is another story in itself. It's a story of suffering. Over [the course of history] from 1948 until now, [Palestinian] land has been shrinking because of grabbing, confiscation and annexation. [Palestinian] farmers are denied access to their land and to their natural resources, which means they can't practice their farming anymore, or they practice it with so many huge, unbeatable challenges on the ground. This is one of the tools the occupation is using to make the life of people impossible, so they leave. Because of [this], the contribution of the agriculture sector to the GDP of Palestine has also declined over history. In the mid-1970s, it was up to 35%. That started to decline year by year until now, when agriculture is contributing less than 4% of our GDP in Palestine.
Our role as a union is to support the resilience of these farmers on their land by providing them with the minimum resources they need to stay on their land and assisting them to face these challenges. We have an ongoing program called "Seeds of Resilience" where we distribute seeds among farmers in the most vulnerable areas. By cultivating the land, we protect that land. Because when you cultivate the land according to the law, you protect that land from being confiscated.
This is a time when PFU’s work is urgently needed, yet your day-to-day must have changed dramatically.
Accessing the land is almost impossible. Our ability to reach farmers is almost impossible. We cannot leave our offices. We can't travel between towns, because there is a high risk for us. [Even] within the same village, going to the farmland is a risk. What type of life are we facing in the West Bank? Who can [endure] this? Hearing about it is shocking, but living it is horrible and terrifying.
What can we do now?
We need governments to take action and to pressure Israel. It is not just about telling Israel to prevent settlers from attacking. This is the time to impose sanctions on them because they're violating everything. Adding to this, [governments] should not punish civil society organisations and freeze all the funds and grants [to Palestine] during this war. You need to double the support you are giving to help farmers and protect them.
We're not an army. We are just farmers trying to plant, cultivate, and to live from what we produce. What can we do to face those settlers with machine guns, [who are] fully protected by the army and backed by their leaders in the government?
Here in the West Bank, we're not fighting. We are just shouting and crying. We want our basic right to our land. End this occupation. This is the only solution. Although Gaza is bloody, maybe there is an opportunity [here] for the whole world to wake up and say, “Enough is enough.”
Full Interview Transcript
1 November - Abbas