Palestinians mourn final Cremisan Valley olive harvest
Extension of Israel’s separation wall will soon cut Palestinians off from the valley’s distinctive olive groves.
Sheren Khalel, Al Jazeera
4 November 2016
Bethlehem, occupied West Bank – The rocky terraces of the Cremisan Valley are mostly overgrown and wild these days, as local landowners say they have lost all hope of keeping control over the more than 300 hectares of olive trees and orchards along the sloping mount, confiscated by the Israeli government earlier this year.
“I haven’t been here at all this year. Look how the weeds have grown over, and trash from the street has piled up,” Ricardo Jaweejat said, motioning towards the vast olive grove that has belonged to his family for generations.
“What’s the point? When we learned the Israelis were taking the land, I avoided doing anything with it. It’s a little bit dangerous to be here now.”
Beit Jala olives are known by Palestinians around the world for producing the finest olive oil, and the oil from the city’s Cremisan Valley is considered to be the best of Beit Jala, a district of the Bethlehem municipality in the southern occupied West Bank. This year is expected to be the last chance to harvest olives from the valley, which will soon be blocked off by an extension of Israel’s separation wall.
The land, now technically the property of the Israeli government, will be closed off to those who normally depend on the autumn olive harvest for what the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem has called an “indispensable source of income”.
“My great-great-great-grandfather harvested this land, and every grandfather after that until my father and I,” Jaweejat said. “I just can’t imagine that this is it; we will lose this land for good.”
The land, now technically the property of the Israeli government, will be closed off to those who normally depend on the autumn olive harvest [Sheren Khalel/Al Jazeera]
Jaweejat was one of about a dozen families who went through a nine-year legal battle with the Israeli government in the hope of keeping their land. In April of last year, an Israeli high court ruled in favour of the petition by Beit Jala residents – but nine months later, an appeal was brought forth, and the court reinstated the original route of the separation wall, annexing the valley.
Jaweejat said that he would like to hope that one day his family will be able to return to Cremisan, but he has never heard of a case of confiscated land going back to its Palestinian owners.
“We try of course, but it’s hard to hold on to any hope,” he said.
Driving back from the valley, through the middle of the Christian-majority city of Beit Jala, cars stopped as an Israeli military Jeep passed through an intersection.
“We can’t avoid them,” Jaweejat said, motioning to the large green Jeep. “They come and go through our neighbourhoods as they please, and take whatever they want.”
The Jeep drove through a part of Beit Jala that is in Area A, which is supposed to be under full Palestinian Authority control. But due to the Israeli military base at the top of the city’s mount, which is in Area C – under full Israeli control – the Israeli military presence is normal in both areas of the city.
At the top of Beit Jala’s mount, the illegal Israeli settlement of Gilo can be seen clearly on the northwest horizon. To the northeast is Har Gilo, and in between them is the Cremisan Valley.
While the Israeli government alleges that the separation wall’s route was planned with security in mind, Palestinian residents in the area are convinced that the route was designed to allow for the illegal settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo to be connected via the Cremisan Valley.
In July, the Israeli government approved planning initiatives for 770 new settler units to be built across from the valley, on land from the nearby Palestinian village of al-Walaja, in order to expand the Gilo settlement.
“That settlement will keep expanding until it takes up all the land from Gilo to Har Gilo. This wall has nothing to do with security – it’s simply a land grab,” Jaweejat said, pointing out that the Cremisan Valley is one of the few places left where residents of the bustling city can be around nature.
Inside Beit Jala’s olive press cooperative, many customers come to press olives from the Cremisan Valley [Sheren Khalel/Al Jazeera]
Inside Beit Jala’s olive press cooperative, dozens of Palestinians waited their turn to use the olive press and bottle this year’s fresh oil.
Ilyas Jacshan, the manager at the olive press, told Al Jazeera that at least a fifth of all his customers come to press olives from the Cremisan Valley.
“Next year we will lose all that business,” Jacshan said. “Many people who have land in Cremisan already skipped this year’s harvest, but next year there will be none.”
According to Jacshan, Beit Jala’s olive oil sells for twice as much as olive oil from outside the city, and Cremisan oil can sell for even higher.
“It’s not a normal grove these people in Cremisan are losing; it’s some of the most sought-out oil in Palestine, and from what we hear, Israel will cut down all those trees once the wall goes up,” Jacshan said.
This year’s olive harvest started later than normal, as the harvest is smaller, and the first rain did not clean away the dust on the trees – the traditional sign of the start of the harvest – until the last Friday in October.
“The mood is different this year, the harvest is bad, and many people have land and trees that are being affected by the wall that the Israelis are building. It isn’t just Cremisan; there are several areas affected,” Jachsan said.
“It is not a happy time for the harvest. People who still have access to their trees are upset with the small harvest, and for others, the harvest reminds them that something that has been in their family for generations is being taken away from them.”
Source: Al Jazeera
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Soldiers shot the legs of two youths among those confronting the raiding army.
Israeli forces also raided the home of a political prisoner from the camp, locking his mother and sister inside the house to pressure the prisoner’s younger brother to turn himself in, the Ma’an News Agency reported.
Soldiers blew off the door to the Ibdaa Cultural Center, adjacent to one of the entrances to the camp, “and occupied the rooftop of the building, from where Israeli snipers fired live ammunition and tear gas canisters at local youth,” according to Ma’an.
Such raids are nothing new, nor is the camp’s resistance against them. The army has shot approximately 30 residents of Dheisheh, which has a population of approximately 15,000 Palestinians, with live ammunition since January. Most have been shot in the legs and knees.
In several testimonies gathered by The Electronic Intifada, youth in the camp say that an Arabic-speaking officer with Israel’s domestic intelligence agency known as the Shin Bet has been provoking youths during clashes and threatening them with physical harm. The officer goes by the alias Captain Nidal.
“They choose [to shoot at] the leg to disable and torture you,” 20-year-old Muhammad, not his real name, told The Electronic Intifada.
During raids, snipers shoot protesters under Captain Nidal’s directives, youth say.
Youth told the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz that they believe the Shin Bet officer is exacting revenge after someone took his photograph during a raid and posted it on Facebook.
According to Badil, a human rights group based in Bethlehem, Captain Nidal has threatened youth “before, during and after the raids, and during interrogations and arrests.”
The Israeli army raided Dheisheh three times between the end of July and mid-August, the group says.
During the recent incursions, at least 18 youths – between 14 and 27 years old – were shot in their legs. Eight were shot directly in the knee and several more in both legs, Badil reports.
Badil’s study was published just days before the Israeli army raided the camp on Friday last week and shot two more youths.
Youth have testified to Badil that Captain Nidal has made statements such as “I will make all the youth of the camp disabled,” “I will have all of you walking with crutches and in wheelchairs,” “I will make half of you disabled, and let the other half push the wheelchairs” and “I will make all of you stand in line at the ATM waiting for your disability subsidies and assistance.”
“The explicit threats by the Israeli army leadership show the willingness to commit criminal acts,” Badil states.
Impact on families
In the last two years in Dheisheh, “at least 81 youths have been injured by bullets in the limbs, about 60 of whom have suffered permanent disabilities,” Al-Quds newspaper reported on 13 August.
All of those injured over the last two months have been previously imprisoned by Israel, according to Al-Quds.
Some youth were recently released from Israeli detention but were re-arrested during these violent raids.
“In the camp, when the soldiers come, you will find 200, 300 kids and also older people throwing stones or even just standing in the streets, trying to show the enemy, the Israeli occupation, that they are not welcome in our camp,” explained an activist and resident of Dheisheh.
The activist told The Electronic Intifada that during these raids, Israeli soldiers swarm the camp in the middle of the night, and hidden snipers shoot at youth from the rooftops of residents’ homes.
During a recent invasion, the activist said that the Israeli soldiers were shooting “continuously for two hours – at whom, we don’t know.”
At least 10 residents, including teenagers, have been arrested during these overnight raids over the past month, he said.
When youth are shot in the legs and knees, the impact on them and their families can be devastating.
The recovery period, along with long-term physical therapy and medication, puts the young people, their families and the larger community under economic and psychological pressure in an area where poverty and unemployment are already high.
“This is what Captain Nidal and the Israeli army want,” the activist said. “They want the families to stop the youth from going out [and resisting], creating a fragmentation within the community.”
Khaled, not his real name, another 20-year-old resident of Dheisheh, says he was shot defending the camp during a pre-dawn army raid on 1 August.
“A soldier made me come out from behind a tree where I was hiding and told me to come out man to man,” Khaled told The Electronic Intifada.
As the soldier approached him, Khaled said a hidden sniper shot him in the leg, five centimeters below the knee.
He has received two operations and will need physical therapy, he added.
“It was definitely intentional that the shooting was in the leg because it can disable you and give a lesson to the youth not to go out and throw stones,” Khaled said.
Muhammad told The Electronic Intifada that he was injured in the same raid.
The youth says he was coming home from working a night shift when he heard that the army was inside the camp. He joined other youth to find and repel the invading soldiers.
“I was injured in the knee area, [which produced] a hole in the bone – nothing was broken, just a hole. And in my other leg I was hit in the flesh. A bullet in one leg and two bullets in the other,” Muhammad said.
“During the confrontations one young man was injured, so I went to carry him and as I was carrying him I was shot in my right leg,” he added.
“I kept walking and he shot me in my other leg, but I still kept going. Then he shot me again and I fell down. The youths came and carried us both away. We were very close to the army and if I had not pulled the other guy away they would have taken him. They [the army] would have taken both of us if the guys hadn’t come and taken us,” Muhammad explained.
Badil says the pattern of “intentional wounding” of demonstrators “amount[s] to a systematic policy and an implementation of Captain Nidal’s threats.”
“We’ve grown up with this”
Inside a camp with such a strong history of political organizing and resistance, Israel has long implemented policies of “collective punishment … to create a new generation of disabled people,” the activist in Dheisheh said.
“We’ve grown up with this,” he added.
Since the first intifada of the late 1980s, Israel has employed various tactics to repress popular uprisings and community defense of Palestinian cities, towns, villages and refugee camps.
As Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration unleashed 51 days of attacks against the Gaza Strip in July and August 2014, killing more than 2,250 Palestinians, including over 550 children, Israeli forces inside the West Bank used live ammunition against demonstrators, causing permanent injuries – perhaps by design.
The Israeli military toldHaaretz that during the raid on al-Fawwar camp, Palestinians were shot “in their lower extremities by rounds from the Ruger rifle, considered to have less force than live fire.”
An army spokesperson toldHaaretz that soldiers use the Ruger – a US-made weapon – in the kinds of raids seen in Dheisheh.
Fertile ground for abuse
The “culture of impunity which now characterizes Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory has proven fertile ground for severe human rights abuses and international crimes,” explained Simon Reynolds, a researcher with Badil.
“It is a culture which has come to be institutionalized through the introduction of live-fire directives which fail to comply with international law, and the abject failure of Israeli military authorities to adequately investigate and prosecute accusations of criminal acts committed by members of its own forces,” he said.
More than 70 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces so far this year in the West Bank, according to United Nations data.
Israeli forces have carried out a weekly average of 71 “search and arrest” operations across the West Bank in 2016.
The military carried out 86 raids during the first week of August alone, the UN monitoring group OCHAreports.
“West Bank refugee camps and the decades-long structural hardships and deprivations suffered by residents have long engendered Palestinian popular resistance, political engagement and protest,” said Reynolds.
“It is difficult to view the ramping up of Israeli raids and the shoot-to-disable policy as anything other than brutal attempts to suppress the Palestinian voice; to demonstrate the ‘cost’ of challenging the status quo,” he told The Electronic Intifada.
In Dheisheh, Muhammad explained that even though they face routine threats of physical and psychological harm from the Israeli army, the youth of the camp won’t be deterred from resisting the Israeli army’s routine acts of violence.
“They do this to stop the youths [from] going out and resisting,” he said, “but despite this we’re waiting for them, even if we’re disabled.”
According to Khaled, “The determination of the youths is increasing and the struggle is continuing. They are not going to destroy the determination of the youth with these injuries.”
This week Sydney has had a special visitor from the Middle East. Just a month ago, Premier of NSW, Mike Baird was in Bethlehem as part of a week’s visit to Palestine and Israel. During that time he met the Mayor of Bethlehem, Dr Vera Babuon.
This morning, the Premier, returned the favour and hosted the Mayor of Bethlehem for a breakfast and sight seeing around Manly’s beautiful beaches.
Mayor Baboun visited Bankstown, where she met amongst other dignitaries, Jihad Dib MLA. Mr Dib is the first Muslim member of the NSW lower house. He is a former principal of Punchbowls High School.
Mayor Baboun was then invited to speak to community representatives from the Marrickville area, as part of Marrickville’s sister city relationship with Bethlehem. This sister city relationship had been inspired by Clr Sam Iskander (who was then and) now Mayor of Marrickville.