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The Olive Harvest in Marda

The MPT team spent some time working with the International Women’s Peace Service (IWPS), a group that provides international accompaniment and non-violent intervention to abuses in the West Bank. MPT and IWPS have a shared mission. Their home-base is in a small village called Haris. It is in the Salfit district, north of Ramallah.
Ari’el, one the oldest and largest settlements in the West Bank, is situated near the Palestinian village of Marda. The settlement was built on land confiscated from the local farmers, and electric fences and rings of razor wire have been placed at intervals to surround Ari’el. In some places, there are six rows of fortifications placed among the terraced olive trees.

Some of the homes in Ari'el above the olive trees

One gate at the entrance
The mayor of Marda had received permission from the Israeli government so the local farmers could enter the enclosed area to harvest their trees. However, the previous week on the official access day, when they approached with internationals from Great Britain, they were denied entry and more razor wire was in place.

Razor wire at entrance
After further phone calls and negotiations, we approached early in the morning to try again to reach the olive groves.
The army was present at the top of a steep gravel path and a double row of gates. Palestinian farmers waited uneasily as each was allowed to entry singly. They were searched, patted down, their IDs checked and confiscated, and told to wait at the side of the military access road. Two donkeys were brought up the road and their packs were thoroughly searched; grain bags for collecting olives were tossed on the ground and inspection of the saddle completed.

Then a man was arrested and placed in handcuffs next to the jeep. When the soldier was asked what the problem was, we were told he was “wanted”. It was pointed out that wanted men do not usually present themselves with an ID to the army. The soldier said, “You wouldn’t believe what they do!”

Farmer arrested and handcuffed
A tractor with a small trailer was pulled up the path near the gates, to be used to transport the olives. The soldiers refused to open the gates for the vehicle. There were phone calls and discussions with the Palestinians but the tractor was not allowed inside the razor wire.

Tractor behind razor wire fence

An hour later, after harassment and humiliation, the farmers were told they could go to their trees and they could return at either two or four o’clock for their IDs. The man who had been arrested was released with no explanation and told to go to join the rest of the villagers picking olives. The MPT team was told they were going to be allowed to enter but they had to stay with the farmers and not enter anywhere near the settlement or “There will be big trouble for everyone.” The soldier seemed to believe he was benevolent in allowing us access that had been agreed upon weeks before.
We walked up the hill toward the settlement with an older man who had not been able to see his trees for five years. There is a law retained from the Ottoman Empire that allows the government to take land that is not worked for five years, even if the government does not allow entry to the land. This gave his trip even more importance.

Farmer denied entry for five years

When we reached the area of his trees, we found another fence and a padlocked gate. We again waited for the military. They unlocked the gate.

MPTer at gate
The farmer went in and inspected the trees. He returned crestfallen; there were no olives. He had not been able to tend the trees, to fertilize, prune, and care for them and there was nothing to pick. He walked back toward the gate, hoping to find the soldiers and his ID before they left.
We joined another farmer with two young helpers and walked up the steep terraces toward his trees. He had better luck and there were olives to pick. He was carrying a pruning saw and pruning shears and worked on the trees as we picked. There were places where weeds, vines, and brambles had grown so thickly that he had to clear the land before we could even get to the trees.
We spread plastic tarps under the trees, to catch the olives. The youngest and lightest of the boys was able to climb to the top, weakest tree limbs and knock the olives to the ground.

Tarps to catch the olives as we pick

Of course there were glasses of tea around 10 o’clock and then a mid-day meal of pita and hummus and some raw vegetables, spread under the trees. It was almost possible to forget we were trapped between an electric fence on one side and razor wire on the other, with no place to go if there was trouble.
We worked with the farmer, making our way to the top terrace directly below the settlement. The terrain is rough and uneven because they cannot do the necessary maintenance of the retaining walls and area around their trees.

Loading the donkey for the trip out
By the end of the day, we were able to load the saddlebags on the donkey and fill another sack for his back. This man was fortunate that he had a donkey to help him with the harvest. Some of the villagers had to walk 3 km with the heavy olive sacks on their backs. It had turned into a productive day for some of the families of Marda.


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