Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Israel: Olive Harvest and Bethlehem

Thanks to Israel's Green Olive Tours in Tel Aviv, we spent the day with Yamen, an informative tour guide from Bethlehem, touring the West Bank.  

We went to the cities of Bethlehem and Hebron, where we visited an olive oil press, glass factory, 1948 refugee camp, important religious sites, including the Church of Nativity and the Mosque of Abraham, shopped for embroidered goods and savored a traditional Palestinian lunch of chicken, rice pilaf, and yogurt. 

Olive Groves in Bethlehem Along the Separation Wall Between Palestine and Israel (Photo: Lexi Van de Walle)
The trip to the West Bank was our first day out of bustling Jerusalem and one of many days on our trip across Israel that we'd see olive grove after olive grove after olive grove with ready to pick olives hanging from gnarly branches and silvery leaves.

Olive oil is a crucial source of income for Palestinians, where one in five people is an olive farmer, and the landscape is covered with hundreds of thousands of olive trees, many of which are hundreds of years old on land that has passed through generations of olive farmers.  The olive harvest in Israel and the West Bank runs from mid-October to mid-November. 

Lucky for me, our tour two Saturdays ago was just days before the end of the season and I got to see an olive oil factory in action. We visited "New Olive Press" factory on YMCA Street in historic Beit Sahour which is part of a fair trade Palestinian Olive Tree Campaign "Keep Hope Alive" that supports local farmers during harvest, pressing and planting of new trees.

Fresh Picked Olives Being Loaded Into the Press (photo: Lexi Van de Walle)
Olives on the Conveyor Belt (and Yaman, our Guide)

Freshly Pressed "Virgin" Olive Oil

Farmers Waiting For The Press
Until 2000, farmers were self-sufficient. Now, many farmers cannot access their land or international markets due to the occupation of the West Bank by Israel and tightened security. There are barriers such as walls, fences, and barbed wire. 

Olive Grove Surrounded on All Sides by A 30 foot Wall and Fences
Others are hamstrung by bureaucracy that requires farmers to have special permits to harvest on their own property -- sometimes the permit is good for one or two days and a limited number of workers. To produce the best olive oil requires a lot of workers over a longer period of time as olives should only be picked at peak ripeness. Traditionally, annual harvests involve all family members and is a communal affair that nearly half of all Palestinians engage in over nearly a two month period.

Other farmers are afraid to access their own property for fear of being attacked. Hundreds of olive trees across the region have been intentionally burned or uprooted by Israeli settlers in an effort to drive farmers from their land so settlers can expand their developments. Tons of olives have been stolen.

Organizations such as the YMCA and Rabbis for Human Rights have stepped in to protect the farmers, show support, and more importantly help to ensure at least some income for olive growing families. To date, nearly 100,000 trees have been planted to replace those that have been destroyed. The United Nations also recognizes the importance of the olive oil industry in a comprehensive 2008 report. 


It was a great excursion...
Church of Nativity, Bethlehem
Cave Underneath Church of Nativity, Bethlehem, Where Jesus Was Born
Two Hebron Boys Selling Beaded Bracelets
Graffiti by BANKSY - Dorothy
Graffiti Banksy - Escalator to the Top of the Wall
Church of Nativity, Bethlehem

Glass Blowing, Hebron, West Bank

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