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MIDEAST: The Olive Branch Fights Back

GAZA CITY, Jan 8 2012 (IPS) - “During hard times, we have survived off olive oil,” says Ahmed Sourani from the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee. “During the last war many people who couldn’t leave their homes had only bread and olive oil to sustain them for long periods.”

An olive nursery set up by in Gaza to restore decimated cultivation. Credit: Eva Bartlett/IPS.

An olive nursery set up by in Gaza to restore decimated cultivation. Credit: Eva Bartlett/IPS.

Even during the first Intifadah (Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation), olives and olive oil were vital to survival. “They enabled many thousands of very poor Palestinian families to survive,” recalls Sourani. “When the Israeli army imposes curfews on us, it is our main food source. Most students take za’atar (wild thyme) and olive oil sandwiches to school for their lunch.”

This source of sustenance has been targeted by Israel over years. In November 2008, Oxfam reported that since 2000, 112,000 olive trees had been destroyed in the Gaza Strip.

“According to Israeli authorities, the ‘buffer zone’, an Israeli-imposed no-go zone prohibiting Palestinians from their land, is 300 metres from the Gaza-Israel Green Line border,” says Sourani. “But in reality it extends well beyond 600 metres, encompassing 30 percent of Gaza’s agricultural land.”

The UN cites areas of up to two kilometres into Gaza from the border rendered inaccessible due to Israel’s policy of shooting, shelling and intrusions into Gaza’s borderlands.

According to the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee (PARC), more than 42 percent of the 175,000 dunams (one dunam is roughly 1,000 square metres) of cultivable land in the Strip has been destroyed during Israeli invasions and operations. The World Health Organisation reports that the last Israeli war on Gaza alone destroyed up to 60 percent of the agricultural industry.

Despite the systematic campaign of destroying olive trees and rendering farmland inaccessible, Sourani says that “some areas of Gaza still have olive trees that are hundreds of years old.” These are particularly in Zaytoun, Sheyjayee and Tuffah neighbourhoods.

The comparatively insignificant number of ancient trees aside, the average age of a tree is around five years, Sourani says.

In the face of the Strip’s increasingly barren farmlands, Gaza’s Ministry of Agriculture now plans non- violent resistance to Israel’s decimation of the Palestinian agricultural industry.

Ahmad Fatayar from the ministry says that over the years including and following the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip, Israeli-influenced policies and economic incentives were designed to force Palestinian farmers away from growing trees on their land towards working in greenhouses or as labourers in Israel.

After Israeli bulldozing of Palestinian farmland, Palestinians found it difficult if not impossible to cultivate their olive trees.

“We have established an olive tree arboretum in order to cultivate one million olive trees throughout the Gaza Strip, particularly in the buffer zone which has been so largely destroyed,” said Fatayar.

Fatayar lists a surprisingly vast variety of benefits and uses of olives: “They can be cultivated in streets, school yards, and in front of houses and can endure severe dryness, salty water, can be stored for long periods, and are used in various industries like food, animal feed, coal, compost, and medicines.”

For an average Palestinian family of eight members, he adds, “two or three olive trees suffice to provide the oil and olives needed for yearly consumption.”

Their practical nutritional and economic aspects aside, olive trees are important for many more reasons, says Ahmed Sourani. “Palestinians also consider the olive tree a symbol of the land, of independence, of peace and dignity.

“We use olive oil for everything, even for the hair. When we are sick, we rub olive oil on our bodies. It is even a source of cosmetics: we use it to make kohl, a non-toxic version of eyeliner. Olive tree leaves are medicinal and can be used in pharmaceuticals and as a tea to treat diabetes and stomach pain.”

To meet the needs of the disproportionate number of Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip (1.6 million in 365 square kilometres), much of Gaza’s olives and oil needs were previously met by farmers from the occupied West Bank.

An Oxfam 2010 report notes that “the Israeli imposed blockade on the Gaza Strip has affected the import of olives and olive oil from the West Bank considerably.” It notes an increase of imports of “oil that was reduced in price because it had reached its expiry date.”

“Now we only get a small amount from the West Bank, the rest coming from Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Spain,” says Sourani. “But we still prefer the olive oil of Palestine: Surri, the favourite olive tree and oil, originally from Roman times.”

Like olive trees, date palms hold special historical, nutritional, economic, and cultural importance for Palestinians. “They are an important source of nutrition, are very productive and don’t cost much to raise,” says Sourani.

“Date palms can be cultivated in only one or two square metres,” notes Ahmad Fatayar. “A single date palm tree can produce from up to 200 kilograms of dates.”

The Ministry of Agriculture’s plan for self-sufficiency includes the nurturing of date palm trees.

“One seedling will about seven years later yield a fruit-bearing palm tree and another ten seedlings,” says Fatayar. “Ten seedlings will seven years later yield ten productive palms and 100 seedlings.”

According to the Ministry’s estimates, by 2020 there will be roughly three million seedlings, a significant number of which will be productive.

The benefits of successful date palm include food (molasses, sweets and oil), textiles (furniture and cloth), agriculture (animal feed), and paper.

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