The annual olive harvest in the West Bank was set to begin in mid-October 2023. However, many Palestinians faced significant difficulties harvesting their crop amid an unprecedented wave of settler violence and increased aggression and access restrictions imposed by the military in the wake of the war that broke out in Gaza on October 7.

The olive harvest is a national and cultural symbol and an important, sometimes only, source of income for many Palestinians in the West Bank. It is also a time of increased settler violence against Palestinians, with incidents including physical attacks on harvesters, damage and destruction of trees, and theft of crop and farming equipment. Soldiers are often present during these incidents, but rather than fulfilling their obligation to protect the Palestinians, they sometimes join forces with the assailants.

Some Palestinian farmers have grown more dependent on olives in recent years, partly as a result of the military’s forced “coordination mechanism,” which denies Palestinian landowners access to lands near Israeli settlements and unauthorized outposts. The military permits access to these privately owned lands only twice a year and only for several days, in the spring for plowing and in the fall for harvesting. When access is permitted, soldiers are meant to escort the Palestinian farmers and protect them from settler attacks.

Because of the “coordination mechanism” and the access restrictions, which prevent continuous farming, many landowners have been forced to give up higher maintenance crops and rely on olive growing, which is less intensive.

Post October 7: Harvest violence as revenge

In October and November 2023, Yesh Din documented 113 violent incidents in which Israeli settlers or soldiers disrupted or prevented the olive harvest. This figure does not represent all incidents of violence against Palestinians in the West Bank during this time, or even just those documented by Yesh Din. It covers only harvest-related violence documented by Yesh Din.

Settlers were the sole perpetrators in 61 of the olive harvest incidents, which included assaulting harvesters, driving them away, stealing farming equipment and olives, cutting down trees and more. In 32 additional incidents, soldiers were present alongside the settlers, and cooperated with them in incidents in which Palestinians were assaulted, driven away or prevented from harvesting altogether, and their possessions were stolen. Twenty other incidents involved soldiers only, who drove Palestinians off farmlands, prevented the harvest, issued threats and confiscated farming equipment. In many places in the West Bank, the military prevented the harvest even in areas that are not subject to the “coordination mechanism” and are not close to settlements or outposts.

As the figures show, members of the Israeli security forces were present in almost half the incidents (46%), but instead of protecting the Palestinian harvesters, as their duties require, they drove them away and prevented them from harvesting. In some cases, the soldiers actively joined the settlers and violently attacked the Palestinians.

In several of the documented incidents, the soldiers in question did not wear a full military uniform, often lacking military boots. These men are likely settlers drafted into settlement and outpost civilian security squads after the war broke out, who decided to exploit the powers and firearms they were given by the state and, instead of defending their communities, set out to violently assault innocent Palestinian farmers. A number of Palestinian victims who contacted Yesh Din said they recognized uniform-wearing attackers as settlers.

N.A., 38, from the village of Qawawis in South Mount Hebron, told Yesh Din:

On Sunday, October 29, 2023, at 4:00 P.M., my father, three brothers and I were in our plot, harvesting olives. Suddenly, we saw three settlers coming towards us with a flock of about 40 heads of sheep, a donkey and a dog. Two of the settlers were armed and masked and the third was holding a club. They went to our neighbor’s plot and broke trees over there. Their flock was grazing among the trees in the plot. The two armed settlers went up to my father’s house, which is near the plot, and scared the women and children. Then, they came towards us and started threatening in Hebrew. Only one of my brothers understands Hebrew. They ordered us to stop working and sit on the ground. Every time we tried to get up and carry on with our work, they threatened us with their weapons. I thought they were going to kill us. Later, four soldiers showed up on foot. I knew one of them. He’s the son of a settler who lives in Mitzpe Yair. We know his family well. They’re especially violent, and they’ve told us before they’re out to kill Arabs. We thought maybe the soldiers would come help us, but they also threatened us and didn’t let us harvest. One of the soldiers attacked my father, who is old and sick, hitting him in the chest. He fell and hurt himself. The soldier, the son of the known settler, also attacked my brother, who fell on the ground. My brother’s finger was broken, and he had bruises all over. Then, they handcuffed, blindfolded and gagged us, and shouted at us: “Uskut! Uskut!” [Quiet! Quiet! in Arabic]. They ordered us to lie on our bellies. We tried to explain that we were harvesting on our land, but it didn’t prevent the abuse.

October 7 was also a launching pad for a campaign of incitement against Palestinians in the West Bank, focusing on farmers and on preventing the harvest and calling for revenge and attacks on innocents. False information that Palestinian harvesters were out to attack settlers spread on many Israeli groups on social media, along with calls to stop the harvest, sometimes noting locations where Palestinians were seen harvesting their olives.

Israelis heeded these calls and carried out planned attacks on people whose only sin was harvesting their own olives. The most severe case occurred on October 28, 2023, when a settler who was also a soldier on leave fatally shot Bilal Saleh, a father of four from a-Sawiyah. Bilal was harvesting olives with his children and other family members on his own land in an area that does not require prior coordination with the military. The settler who killed Bilal was arrested and released five days later.

Call posted on the Fighting for Life WhatsApp group, October 2023.

The post reads, “This is not a harvest, this is the planning of the next massacre. We won’t wait for Nazis.”

Post on the Hill News 4 WhatsApp group on October 26, 2023.

The post reads: “Hill News Breaking: People in Eli were told the military was going to bring Arab harvesters to harvest olives in the community… But there are guys in Eli who aren’t so keen on that happening… especially in the middle of a war… Jolly Jews harvested most of the olives themselves, and what they didn’t have time to harvest, they sprayed with a very suspicious substance… It’ll be interesting to see what flavor their olive oil has… [laughing emojis]… Okay, waiting for the “harvesters” to come…”

2023 Olive Harvest Data

The 113 olive harvest incidents documented by Yesh Din feature different types of violence against Palestinian harvesters, some more than one.

  • In 24 incidents, settlers or soldiers physically assaulted Palestinian harvesters, forcing them to stop working.
  • In 11 incidents, live rounds were fired at Palestinian harvesters.
  • In 54 incidents, settlers or soldiers threatened Palestinian harvesters with firearms or verbally, stopping them from harvesting.
  • In 29 incidents, olive trees were fully or partially cut down, vandalized or torched. At least 715 olive trees were destroyed.
  • In 15 incidents, settlers or soldiers stole the olive crop.
  • In six incidents, settlers seized control of Palestinian farmland and denied Palestinians access to it.
  • In four incidents, agricultural roads were blocked, and Palestinian harvesters were denied access to the lands.

 

M.N., 37, from the village of Madama, near Nablus, told Yesh Din:

On Saturday, November 11, 2023, I went out in the early morning hours with my father, his wife, my children, my brother and my brother’s children to harvest olives in a plot located about 30 meters south of the far end of the village. We access this plot without having to coordinate. At 9:30-10:00 A.M., three soldiers came down from the direction of the hill below Yizhar. They arrived in a pickup truck, parked at the top of the hill, and came down towards us on foot. I asked my father, his wife and the children to leave right away. My brother and I stayed behind to pick up the equipment and then went to the yard of the house that’s closest to the plot. The three soldiers chased us and made it to the yard. Without saying anything, they took our phones and ID cards and returned them a little while later. We didn’t say anything to each other. One of the three pointed his gun at us, and the other two took the olive shaker and the battery and went up towards the pickup truck.

Conclusion

The 2023 olive harvest in the West Bank was dramatically impacted by the war in Gaza. Settler violence against Palestinian harvesters was organized and severe, while soldiers helped the assailants instead of protecting the harvesters and prevented many Palestinians from harvesting even in lands that are not subject to the coordination mechanism.

This year’s figures are markedly graver compared to previous years. As noted, Yesh Din documented 93 incidents of settler violence related to the olive harvest (and 20 more in which only soldiers were present). During the 2022 olive harvest, Yesh Din documented 38 cases of settler violence against Palestinians; 42 such cases in 2020 and 2021 each, and 28 in 2019. In other words, in 2023, the scale of violence during the harvest was two to three times greater than in previous years.

As in previous years, whether deliberately or by omission, Israeli law enforcement agencies in the West Bank failed to fulfill their duties and did not prevent Israeli citizens from harming Palestinian harvesters and their property. In addition, soldiers were directly and systematically involved in denying Palestinian farmers access to their lands, as well as threatening and attacking them, in breach of the military’s own policy.