In the West Bank, Israeli Settlers Are Burning Palestinians’ Olive Trees

In the West Bank, the Israeli army has banned Palestinian farmers from reaching their land and groups of settlers are burning farmers’ crops. Jacobin spoke to olive growers about Israel’s draconian moves to destroy their livelihoods.

Palestinian farmer cries as she hugs one of her olive trees in the West Bank village of Salem, on November 27, 2005. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh / AFP via Getty Images)

On October 30, farmer Omar Ghoneym drove from al-Khader to his lands in the southern area of Bethlehem. On his way there, he received unfathomable news: most of his property (mainly olive trees) had been uprooted and destroyed by settlers. What he saw when he arrived broke him. Not only had he lost all of his harvest, but even the centuries-old dar ( دار — traditional rural house), which used to overlook the hill, had been torn apart stone by stone by Israeli bulldozers.

Mahmoud Abdullah, another farmer, has acres of grape vines just next to Omar’s trees. He hadn’t been allowed to pick the fruits since October 7. But on the morning of October 30, nothing was left to harvest because his vines had been crushed into the soil. Settlers vandalized everything on the Palestinian hills surrounding their colony, Efrat.

Palestinian farmers know their land by the square-millimeter. To them, there is no such thing as “wild plants”: each sprout on their land is an expression of Palestinian life, as indigenous flora. They harvest the crops, take care of their trees, and walk along their vines with the same love and responsibility with which they protect their loved ones. Their families have been caretakers of these trees for generations; the olive trees have been feeding and protecting their caretakers for just as long.

This war is not only taking place in Gaza. After the attacks on October 7, the West Bank has experienced the deadliest weeks since the Second Intifada. As of this Tuesday, over 140 Palestinians in the West Bank have been killed, 2,040 people have been arrested, and villages and cities have been placed under a blockade, which has prevented residents from traveling outside their towns.

Palestinian farmers have been especially struggling, as most have land, crops, and harvest in so-called Area C. This is the largest of three zones that the West Bank has been divided into since the Oslo agreements of the 1990s, which stipulated that the Palestinian Authority is meant to administer Areas A and B, while Area C is meant to be “progressively handed back to Palestinians.” In reality, Area C, comprising nearly 70 percent of West Bank territory, remained under the complete military control of the Israeli army (Israel Defence Forces, IDF), and Israeli settlements have continually expanded there over the last three decades.

Destroyed structure in al-Khader village, south Bethlehem, on October 30, 2023. (Courtesty of Mahmoud Abdullah and Omar Ghoneym)

Farmers haven’t been allowed to reach these territories at all over the last month, and the IDF has informed them that if they attempt to reach their olive groves, they will be killed. Some farmers have shared photos of leaflets that settlers left on their groves, which read: “You have reached the border! Entry is forbidden and dangerous, and anyone who approaches will see burning trees.”

When asked what he has been doing, given the prohibition to tend to his grape vines, Mahmoud says he has been spending his days only watching the news and praying for the people of Gaza. “At this point, the harvest has already all gone to waste. All we can do is hope the war ends. How can we deal with our own problems here while Gaza is burning?”

Attacks against farmers reached a peak on October 28, when Bilal Saleh, a farmer from southern Nablus, was shot by an off-duty Israeli soldier in front of his four children, dying instantly. The soldier has been arrested, but as the record shows in previous cases of settler and/or soldier attacks on Palestinian civilians, the Israeli perpetrators have been prematurely released — protected by impunity.

Other farmers, such as Na’em Abu Eram and his family from southern Hebron, have been assaulted and severely injured by beatings. While Na’em’s father, aged seventy-two was herding his sheep, he was attacked by settlers and later hospitalized. One of Na’em’s siblings has been recording on camera all the attacks they’ve undergone in the past fifteen years and shares the videos with human rights NGOs such as B’Tselem. Two weeks ago, a settler confiscated his phone and broke his fingers while doing so.

Abdullah Salem Abu Aram is sixty-two years old and, after his retirement as a school teacher, decided to dedicate all his life to cultivating his lands in the village of Qawawis, South Hebron Hills. They’ve belonged to his family since 1958, and in 1981, his father planted hundreds of olive trees across the nearly thirty acres of land they own.

Abdullah Salem picking olives. (Courtesy of Caroline S. Pedrazzi)


“The Occupation has prevented us from plowing, pruning, and reaping our fruits by expelling us from the land before and after the war. The settlers have always beaten us and threatened to kill us. They call in the army, which expels us from our land under false pretexts.” He continues: “Now we cannot return to harvest the crop because we fear for our lives and don’t know what to do. The crop will be destroyed as we won’t be able to pick it. It constitutes 80 percent of my family’s income, but I am not even thinking about this right now, as what is happening in Gaza occupies all our thoughts.”

Most Palestinian civilians — especially farmers — don’t own weapons. On the other hand, settlers — who all have military training and equipment — recently received thousands of guns and rifles distributed by Israel’s national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir himself.

We wrote to the IDF spokesperson’s unit and asked them to comment on the recent surge in settler and soldier violence in the West Bank, requesting they specifically take into consideration Bilal Saleh’s murder and the attacks affecting farmers. In their reply, they failed to mention either subject, but underlined that their mission in the territory of “Judea and Samaria” — a Biblical name for the West Bank — is to ensure the security of its residents and prevent any terrorist attack.

As part of the counterterrorism operations, they say they have been conducting nightly arrests to apprehend suspects and installed “dynamic checkpoints” to ensure security across the territory. Needless to mention, the residents to be protected are only Israelis, as all Palestinians fall under the category of potential terrorists.

Poster found by farmers in the hills south of Hebron; it reads: “You have reached the border! Entry is forbidden and dangerous, and anyone who approaches will see burning trees.” (Courtesy of Carolina S. Pedrazzi)

Their comment simply does not reflect reality: the nightly arrests have resulted in the detention of thousands of peace activists or of ordinary Palestinians who have been accused of collaboration with terrorism simply for liking Facebook posts. On the other hand, the “dynamic checkpoints” in question are, in fact, rather rigid cement blocks, iron gates, and earth mounds, which have entirely restricted movement for Palestinians inside and outside their towns. This has further isolated many communities that are already underserved and lack access to health facilities or water resources due to the occupation.

Moreover, to put into perspective the IDF’s “counterterrorism” agenda, we should keep in mind that data before October 7 shows that settlers in the West Bank were already the residents with the highest gun ownership in all of Israel and Palestine, and that the use of firearms to perpetrate attacks against Palestinians has been exponentially growing in recent years.

With this in mind, the claim to self-defense as a justification for the violence unleashed against Palestinians is hugely disproportionate — and makes no sense when the victims of this violence are unarmed farmers.

Agriculture for Liberation

“October is a sacred month for Palestine: many farmers’ yearly income relies almost entirely on the olive harvest season. Families will be left with nothing as a consequence of the Israeli blockade,” says Saad Dagher, a Palestinian agronomist from Mazari En-Nubani, a village north of Ramallah.

Dagher has over a quarter-century of field and academic experience in agricultural research. He argues that Palestinian liberation is inherently linked with Palestinians’ right to self-administer their own agriculture. For decades, the land has been colonized — and Israeli authorities have forced Palestinian farmers to obey cultivation methods at odds with their traditions.

“Palestinian farming has always been polycultural, meaning that different crops can and should grow side by side on one piece of land. Israeli agriculture has imposed monocultures, which go against the natural biodiversity and self-sustainability of Palestinian land,” says Dagher. This is one of the two main reasons why Israel gives farmers such a hard time, namely that they want to eliminate all traces of Palestinian history — its soil’s natural history as well.

The other reason is that trees and crops that are rightfully owned by Palestinians represent an obstacle to seizing more territory for building colonies, so eliminating their traces facilitates the process. “Approximately one million olive trees, many of which were centuries old, have been uprooted by Israel since 1967. They don’t only uproot them on the pretext that they need to make space for settlements or other Occupation infrastructure. They also claim that the olive trees represent “security threats” toward Israelis, as trees are posts behind which Palestinians hide to target soldiers. It’s madness.”

Palestinian farmers produce between twenty-five thousand and thirty-five thousand tons of olive oil (Zeit Zeitoun) yearly; Dagher predicts that this year’s season will yield, at best, between twelve thousand and fifteen thousand tons. Similar numbers came out of the harvest seasons from the Second Intifada, during which farmers not only were unable to pick their olives but would also be stopped routinely at Israeli checkpoints and forced to spill onto the road the few gallons of olive oil they had managed to produce.

Destroyed olive groves in al-Khader village, south Bethlehem, on October 30, 2023. (Courtesy of Mahmoud Abdullah and Omar Ghoneym)

Dagher fears that history will repeat itself as more and more farmers and innocent Palestinians are being harassed at exceptionally high rates. Yet, while the Palestinian economy — which depends significantly on agriculture (6 percent of GDP) — will face dreadful consequences, the current crackdown on farmers is no surprise.

Even before October 7, Palestinian farmers were never allowed free access to their land. Every time they had to tend to their land, they needed to request a special permit from the IDF, which would authorize them to cultivate at prescribed times — in order not to be harassed by settlers. And, because the Israeli army often didn’t release these permits, farmers faced the dilemma of whether to risk their lives to take care of their fields and trees or to take care of themselves and lose their harvest. The risk is very high, as reaching their lands often entails having to trespass the constantly monitored apartheid wall that divides the Palestinian territory into segregated zones. But most farmers are willing to take the risk if it means protecting their soil.

Claiming Land by Destroying it

The destruction of olive trees and harvestable land has affected not only Palestine, but Southern Lebanon as well. Recent reports show that the IDF has used so many white phosphorus artillery shells in the conflict gradually developing on the Israeli-Lebanese border, that over forty thousand acres of harvestable land is now burnt and left uncultivable. Hundreds of Lebanese farmers and their families have been displaced after losing their main source of income: their olive trees.

With every olive tree that gets burnt, uprooted, and vandalized, a wider truth emerges: there is one side that claims the land as its own by protecting it and lovingly looking after it; and another side that claims it as its own by destroying the nature and eradicating its agricultural history.

For Omar, the farmer whose olive groves were run over by settlers’ bulldozers:

They fight the tree, they fight the stone, they fight the land: they fight anything that bears testament to Palestinian history. They want to change the face of the land because they are afraid of the truth it holds. But we have one weapon that they can’t have with which we resist all their attempts to drive us away: the ancestral love for and duty to protect everything which grows on Palestinian soil. Palestine is our mother, and we will never abandon her.

That commitment to resistance is exactly what Israel is literally trying to uproot.