Gaza Strip – Samaher Abu Jameh is angry.
The mother of two has worked as a farmer with her parents since her childhood in the town of Abasan al-Kabira in southern Gaza, close to the border with Israel. “My land has olive trees and greenhouses planted with tomatoes and livestock,” she says.
She can no longer tend to those trees or tomatoes: The 40-year-old was displaced with her family and is living in a United Nations-run school in the centre of Khan Younis due to near-continuous Israeli bombing since October 7.
“I have no idea what state they are in. I just want to reach my land to see what has become of it,” she says.
It’s a sentiment echoed by farmers across Gaza.
The months of October and November, when olives are harvested, hold special significance for Palestinians, who consider the harvest a national occasion that celebrates their relationship and connection with the land.
Farmers pick olives with their extended families and friends. Folk songs create a festive atmosphere. Meals are cooked and eaten under the trees. The olives are then pressed to extract olive oil, its quality depending on the climate and soil.
But with Israel’s latest war on Gaza, which began on October 7 after the Hamas attacks on southern Israel, farmers have been forced away from their land and homes, and the ever-present risks that they already faced because of their proximity to the border with Israel have multiplied dramatically.
Samaher says that some farmers tried to go back to their lands but were targeted by Israeli warplanes.
“We are experiencing great suffering as farmers because these wars cost us greatly,” she says. “We barely had time to catch our breath from the 2021 war before this started.”
Even before the war, the olive-picking season had increasingly been marred by violence. In the occupied West Bank, Israeli settlers have been documented attacking Palestinians on their lands, stealing their olives and setting fire to their groves. Bilal Saleh, a Palestinian olive farmer, was shot dead by a settler in October while harvesting his crop near Nablus.
In the Gaza Strip, the challenges come from the Israeli military, which either targets and bombs farmland during times of war or sprays it with pesticides, killing crops and rendering the soil unsuitable for farming.
Near the southern city of Khan Younis, the agricultural lands span an area of more than 4,000 hectares (9,884 acres) and lie east of the city around towns near the Israeli border fence: Khuza’a, Abasan al-Kabira, Abasan al-Jadida and Bani Suhaila. There are 7,000 farms in the Khan Younis governorate, according to the Ministry of Agriculture in the Gaza Strip.
Ahmed Abu Rjeila, 40, is accustomed to dodging bullets. “I used to go to my land in Abasan al-Jadida with my three brothers despite the dangers that we faced every day from the Israeli occupation, who would shoot at us in order to leave,” he says.
Now, the risk is too high – even though the prospect of losing his harvest worries him. He and his family were displaced from their home at the beginning of the war, and have been staying at one of the UN schools in Khan Younis.
“I have hundreds of olive trees, and my family and friends were supposed to pick them and sell them in the market or press them in olive mill machines,” he says. He also has seasonal crops in greenhouses. “I spent thousands of shekels on this season, and there will be no return on my investment if this war continues and my access to my land is denied.”
Anger, heartbreak over loss of crops
Continuous bombing east of Khan Younis has resulted in the deaths of nearly 20 farmers and injuries to others, according to the Ministry of Agriculture in Gaza.
Over the past week, the Israeli army opened tank fire towards the agricultural lands east of the town of al-Fukhari, where farmers were trying to reach their lands to collect their crops and sell them in marketplaces.
Ahmed Qudeih, 37, is from the town of Khuza’a and owns 0.6 hectares (1.5 acres) of land. He says all the farmers have been forced from their homes and are now staying in different areas of the Khan Younis city centre.
“We are heartbroken over our crops, which we cannot reach,” he says. “We can’t irrigate or observe our land or take care of it. After every devastating war, we pay thousands of shekels to ensure the quality of our crops and to make our soil suitable again for agriculture.”
Being a farmer on a normal day in Gaza can be a life-threatening vocation, he says, adding that Israeli forces have got “creative in destroying farmers’ businesses” by inflicting human, material and economic losses.
“Over the past years, the land that I cultivate has been subjected to various types of violations from Israeli soldiers,” he says. “I have been exposed several times to gunfire. The army has also bulldozed the land and sprayed the crops with pesticides to destroy them.
“This caused me huge financial losses, but after each round of destruction, I return to prepare the land for cultivation again.”
Season over for olive oil production
Last year, the Ministry of Agriculture determined that the area of land planted with olive trees in the Gaza Strip was about 4,400 hectares (10,800 acres) and estimated that they could produce 35,000 tonnes of olives.
A small portion, about 9 percent (9,000 to 10,000 tonnes), is pickled in homes or factories, but the majority is sent to olive mill presses to transform it into oil. There are about 40 olive oil extraction presses, of which 32 are equipped with modern automatic equipment, six are semi-automatic and two operate manually on old stone mills.
Fayyad Fayyad, the director of the Palestinian Olive Council, says the annual average olive production season in Palestine is estimated at 100,000 tonnes, which yields up to 20,000 tonnes of olive oil.
“This year’s olive season bears the name ‘sheltoni’, which means that the olive crop is small and not plentiful,” he says. “For olive trees, it is usual to experience one year with an abundant crop and the following year with a smaller one.
“Last year, the season was abundant and witnessed the production of 36,000 tonnes in the Gaza Strip. Had it not been for the war, this season would have produced 10,000 tonnes of olives, or the equivalent of 2,000 tonnes of olive oil.”
Many farmers have resigned themselves to the reality that this harvest season is over, saying that neither their homes nor lands have remained intact.
Still, the farmers are clear that they will regenerate their lands after every war, even as one as devastating as the current offensive, which so far has killed more than 10,000 Palestinians.
“Our hearts burn over our lands,” Nisreen Abu Daqqa from Khuza’a says. “We wait all year long for the olive season, which is the most beautiful season, but the Israelis have deliberately burned our trees using their missiles and tank shells.”