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Left-wing Israeli and international activists pick olives, alongside Palestinians, in farmlands near the village of Burin, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on October 22, 2018. Image Credit: AFP

Nablus, Occupied West Bank - Palestinian farmer Mahmoud Abu Shinar surveys two rows of severed olive trees - something he says has become a sadly familiar sight.

He didn’t see who took a chainsaw to them at night, but he blames residents of an Israeli colony a few hundred metres away.

“We came on Sunday and were shocked that all these trees were cut down,” Abu Shinar said. “I called the landowner. They came and the (Israeli occupation) army came too. But of course it was useless.”

Olives are perhaps the most well-known and abundant Palestinian product, with trees lining valleys and terraced hillsides throughout the occupied West Bank. Palestine have some of the world's oldest olive trees, dating back to more than 4,000 years.

A Symbol

Olive trees are a symbol for Palestinians; they live and bear fruits for thousands of years much like the Palestinian legacy of the land. And there are other similarities: Olive trees are draught-resistant and grow under poor soil conditions; they are an ode to Palestinian resistance and resilience.

A man pick olives in farmlands near the village of Burin. Image Credit: AFP

Palestinians are proud of their olive trees and appreciative of them.

Some trees we are taught have been producing olives from the times of Jesus, Omar Ben Khatab, Salah Eddin and Napoleon Bonaparte. These ancient olive groves have provided livelihoods for generations. There are approximately 12 million olive trees in Palestine, according to Bethlehem University.

Did you know? In the country, they use only olive oil to light church and shrine lamps – it’s considered the blessed tree of the holy land. As babies, each Palestinian was lovingly massaged with olive oil and salt to make him/her strong. As they grow, they begin their day by drinking a small cupful of the fat, because it gives the drinker strength and energy.

Every table you sit to eat on will have a small plate with green or black olives- no matter the time, no matter the occasion – as a Palestinian you begin and end your meal with an olive.

Harvest Season

Some families have trees that have been passed down to them for generations and the olive harvest season in November becomes a festive season across all villages. Many leave their jobs and head to their villages to help in the harvest season. Even schools and universities close in the last week of November for this reason.

International activists pick olives, alongside Palestinians, in farmlands near the village of Burin. Image Credit: AFP

Palestinian families come together to harvest olive trees and work as olive-pickers from dawn ‘til dusk, day after day after day. Children, parents and grandparents, each have a role to play in this act, remembering their forefathers and mothers who tended to the same trees years and years ago.

And even the Palestinians in diaspora wait anxiously to get their first olive oil carafe from Palestine, and believe me nothing beats that first taste of the virgin dark green oil soaked up in a piece of hot Palestinian bread called Kaak.

According to UN figures, around 48 per cent of the agricultural land in the West Bank and Gaza is planted with olive trees. Olive trees account for 70 per cent of fruit production in Palestine and contribute around 14 per cent to the Palestinian economy. Ninety-three per cent of the olive harvest is used for olive oil production while the rest is used to make olive soap, table olives and pickles.

With the growing interest in organic food and fair trade, Palestinian olives are now also reaching European and North American markets. And of course that’s perfect, for it pays homage to the Palestinian spirit: full of resilience.

"Price tag"

The first rains after the hot summer months are the signal for farmers to begin harvesting their crop, but it can come with risks.

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Palestinian farmer Mahmoud Abu Shinar stands next to destroyed olive trees, near the West Bank village of Turmus Aya, north of Ramallah, on October 22, 2018. Image Credit: AFP

In many places, farmers say they face intimidation and violence from nearby colonists and call in support from foreign and Israeli supporters, including Jewish rabbis, to protect them and their crops.

Some of the incidents are seen as attempts at revenge following Palestinian attacks on Israelis, even if the farmers targeted were not involved. Those attacks are called "Price tag"

In other cases, say rights groups, there is little motivation other than just to destroy Palestinian property.

Some rights groups have distributed video footage of such incidents in a bid to pressure the Israeli occupation regime to act.

More than 7,000 Palestinian-owned trees have been vandalised so far this year, according to the United Nations. In the whole of 2017, it was less than 6,000, the year before only 1,600.

Abu Shinar said that in recent weeks around 200 trees had been destroyed in fields he works on near Ramallah in the central West Bank, costing thousands of dollars in lost earnings.

“They want the land,” he said, of the colonists. “Who else would come and commit a crime like this?”

Rights groups charge that Palestinian crops have long been vandalised by colonists without any serious effort by the authorities to stop it.

Around 400,000 Israelis live in colonies that dot the West Bank and range in size from large towns to tiny hamlets. The international community considers them illegal.

A few dozen kilometres north of Abu Shinar’s trees near the city of Nablus, a small group huddles under a tree, picking through the leaves for olives.

Just 10 metres away stands an abandoned house daubed with Hebrew graffiti, while the Israeli colony of Har Brakha is over a hill.

Retired British woman Caroline, who declined to give her full name, said she had been coming each year for a decade to work with Palestinian communities close to “particularly difficult colonies”.

This year, she said, she went with a female farmer to her land near a colony, but the occupation army blocked their path.

“When she eventually got into the groves, 100 of her trees had been chainsawed down by colonists. There weren’t even any olives for us to pick,” she said.