Olives as resistance

Why the Palestinian harvest sparks settler-state violence.

Olives as resistance
A car belonging to Palestinians burns after having been set on fire by Israeli settlers during the olive harvest in Turmus Ayya, occupied West Bank. Credit: Ethan A

It’s a sunny October morning near the Palestinian village of Turmus Ayya outside Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. It’s olive harvest season, and a large group of Palestinians has arrived to gather up this year’s crop from a grove at the foot of a hill. Some have travelled from other parts of the West Bank to come and help. At the hill’s summit, Israeli settlers, accompanied by soldiers, are already gathering outside their outpost (which is illegal even under Israeli law, in theory at least). The olive harvesters quickly get to work.

Before they can even finish gathering the first tree’s crop, the settlers – many of them children – advance down the hill, throwing rocks. As the rain of stones intensifies, the Palestinian harvesters hurriedly try to escape. In the melee, two cars are abandoned as their owners flee on foot. The settlers waste no time enthusiastically smashing the windows and setting the vehicles on fire. The army makes no effort to prevent any of this, instead firing tear gas canisters and stun grenades at the retreating Palestinians.

I witnessed this scene first-hand during a week spent accompanying local farmers on the harvest last month, as part of a delegation from the Center for Jewish Nonviolence (CJNV). To my uninitiated eyes, the violence to which Palestinians were subjected from both settlers and soldiers – simply for trying to gather olives from their families’ groves – was horrifying. But for the people who must endure it year in, year out, for the entire harvest season and beyond, such violence is tragically unremarkable.

This begs a question that could be asked of both the Palestinians and the settlers: why bother?

Why do Palestinian farmers put themselves through all of this for the sake of a few olives? Why do other Palestinians organise coach rides every day to help harvest groves that don’t belong to them, without even being paid for their labour? Why risk being attacked for such an apparently meagre reward?

And why, on the other hand, do Israeli settlers, protected by one of the world’s most powerful militaries, spend their time attacking Palestinians merely for harvesting olives from trees that have belonged to their families for generations? What is so threatening for them about letting farmers harvest their olives in peace? And why does the army so often enable, or even facilitate, this violence?

The answer is simple: the olive harvest epitomises the Palestinian struggle to remain on their ancestral land, in the face of Israel’s relentless attempts to displace and dispossess them. In other words, it’s about far more than just olives.


For Palestinian farmers, olives provide a livelihood. The Israeli occupation severely restricts the Palestinian economy, making it hard to earn a living through many other professions or business ventures. For these families, being able to harvest their olive trees is what puts food on the table.

But olives are more than just a source of income. Many groves, and the individual trees within them, have been tended to by farmers’ families for generations, and they are not going to give them up without a fight. More broadly, the practice of cultivating olive groves is a symbol of Palestinian indigeneity and connection to the land itself: by producing bountiful harvests through farming methods that in some cases have barely changed in centuries, farmers demonstrate the falsity of the colonial Zionist narrative that Palestine was an empty, barren wasteland before Jewish ingenuity ‘made the desert bloom’.

There is a practical aspect, too: by proving that they are actively working the groves, Palestinian farmers make it harder for settlers to bring claims over that land – whether moral claims, or legal claims that rely on obscure Ottoman-era laws of adverse possession, which would enable Israel to take ownership of dead (i.e. uncultivated) land. This is especially important where groves are on the border of Jewish settlements, ripe for expansionary land theft, or on hilltops that are prime sites for new outposts.

Palestinians harvest from their olive groves in Turmus Ayya, occupied West Bank, with the help of international volunteers. Credit: Ethan A

It’s clear the olive is many things to Palestinians: a crucial source of income, a symbol of generational continuity, peoplehood and place, and a critical piece of legal evidence in the fight against settlement expansion. The harvest, therefore, is a multi-faceted act of resistance against the occupation – which is exactly why settlers are so determined to prevent it.

By strangling the livelihoods of rural Palestinian farmers, settlers hope to make it financially unviable for them to continue living on their land, forcing them to give it up and move away to urban centres. This, in turn, would enable further land theft and settlement expansion in rural areas of the West Bank, with fewer Palestinians left to resist it.

Furthermore, in order for the colonial project of occupation and settlement to be able to succeed, the Palestinian connection to the land must be severed. The olive harvest is a symbol of that connection, and of Palestinians’ steadfast resistance in the face of Israel’s attempts to displace them, so it must be prevented at all costs. If the harvest will also stand in the way of Israeli legal claims to more and more Palestinian land, all the more reason for settler violence against farmers.

When settlers (invariably backed up by soldiers) successfully prevent Palestinians from harvesting their groves, they usually make no attempt to pick the crop for themselves; instead, they often uproot the trees or even set them on fire. They don’t want or care about the olives, they just want the land. So much for “making the desert bloom” – in reality, what settlers engage in is more like ecological terrorism. If they had their way, these ancestral groves would be paved over with new settlement suburbs.

But amidst the constant state-sanctioned violence, there are some rays of light. After the scene I described above, the Palestinian group managed to return and peacefully harvest two more olive groves that day, uninterrupted by attacks. In a struggle that moves from one grove to the next, day by day, year by year, small victories like this offer hope that one day the moral outrage of the occupation will end, and Palestinians will be able to harvest on their land peacefully, free from the fear of settler violence and the oppression of military rule.

Ethan A is a lawyer and member of Na'amod and Jewish Solidarity Action.