OLIVE and almond farmers in Palestine are struggling to harvest their crops owing to the threat of attacks by Israeli settlers, the Fairtrade Foundation has said.
Violence in the country has meant that 15 Israelis and dozens of Palestinians have died over the past two months. The violence began in September, when tensions at a holy site in Jerusalem, revered by Jews and Muslims, boiled over.
The Director of Policy and Public Affairs at the charity, Barbara Crowther, travelled to the West Bank last month to visit olive and almond producers supplying the UK Fairtrade market. She spoke to farmers in the town of Beta, in Nablus, who told her that settlers were using violence to restrict access to neighbouring fields.
"By preventing Palestinian farmers from accessing their lands, the notion is that they will progressively give up on their land, and move away, and then the settlers can move on to that land," Ms Crowther said. There are three Israeli settlements surrounding the town. The attacks had involved stone-throwing, gun threats, and the burning and cutting down of trees when farmers were away, she said.
One man spoke of his fellow olive farmer Adel Shehadeh, who has two pieces of land near the Israeli West Bank barrier. "Every time he tries to go with his family to harvest this land, settlers would come and attack them, and they end up going back home," he said.
Israeli security forces are also said to be conducting unannounced raids on farming families, causing distress and disruption to farming life. Searches had been carried out "several times" on his home, one farmer said. "Sometimes, we will be sleeping, and all of a sudden you wake up to find someone standing in your own bedroom. . .
"They just come in and say: ‘This is for security reasons. We have an order to search the house.’ They are usually very aggressive. They lock the women and children in a separate room."
Another farmer told Ms Crowther that, at the entrance road to Beta, security forces were using concrete blocks to close off agricultural land for hours at a time without reason. "We never know why these things happen," he said. "Sometimes we can find our way in and out with little side roads, but we have to make huge detours to get in and out at such times."
In Bethlehem, the separation barrier in the Cremisan Valley — initially built to protect pedestrians from the crossfire between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers — has been extended.
The former head of campaigns at Fairtrade, Veronica Pasteur, who was due to return to London from the Holy Land last week, said that the construction was "stealing more land" from the people of the town while "destroying thousands of olive trees" and creating "an ugly scar" on the landscape.
In Burin, south of Nablus, large amounts of agricultural land had been confiscated from farmers to assist illegal settlements. About 60 per cent of the land around Burin — formerly olive groves — had been occupied for the construction of settlements.
Since coming together to join the Palestinian Fair Trade Association (PFTA), however, families were getting a better deal, Ms Crowther said. She had visited the village of Siir, south of Jenin, where she met a young farmer, Mohammed Irsheid. He and his family joined the PFTA when it was set up in 2004.
"Prior to the occupation, we were a farming family, generation after generation; but then, after the occupation, it wasn’t possible," he said. "The price of olive oil and wheat was very low; so then, as well as farming their land, people started to get jobs . . . in settlements, or go into Israel to try to get some kind of labour work."
Within two years, 36 families, who were already farming organically, had joined in the new Siir co-operative. "It wasn’t difficult to get farmers to join," Mr Irsheid said. "They were prepared to buy all our oil, and no one was taking advantage of us."
"Farmers can now support each other . . . and use premiums to invest in their communities," Ms Crowther said.