HEBRON // Idris Zahadi hoisted a sack of olives weighing more than 20 kilos over his shoulder and began the trek along steep hillsides to a lorry waiting to take the freshly harvested fruit for pressing.
The caretaker of more than 100 Palestinian-owned olive trees, Mr Zahadi, 65, has his job made harder because the grove and his home are in the Israeli military-controlled part of Hebron in which Jewish settlers live, known as H2. Palestinian vehicles are not allowed on any of the streets nearby, which is why he has to carry the olives for one kilometre despite having an injured back. This year he made the trip 25 times.
This harvest season was delayed by three weeks, starting only at the end of October, as an escalation in Israeli-Palestinian violence shifted from Jerusalem to Hebron that month. In all, more than 110 Palestinians were killed, many of them by security forces who accused them of trying to attack Israelis, while 19 Israelis also died. With tensions high in the city, Palestinians in Hebron were scared to move around freely in case they were mistaken for an attacker, including to harvest their olives.
“Because a lot of Palestinians have died here in the past six weeks – one was killed by a settler – Palestinians are too afraid to harvest their olives,” Mr Zahadi told The National as he gathered the last of his olives in late November.
He said Israeli forces and settlers had also tried to prevent the harvest, but it eventually began with the help of foreign volunteers.
“It’s really dangerous – even when we have a lot of internationals helping us, the soldiers demand that they leave.”
To produce the best oil, olives must be harvested at the right time using proper techniques and immediately taken to the presses. A delay can result in oil of poor quality.
Mr Zahadi pointed to burn marks on the trunks of five of the olive trees in the grove, some of which are more than 1,000 years old. He said settlers had tried repeatedly to burn down the trees over the past three years but he had put out the fires with buckets of water from a nearby well.
As Mr Zahadi spoke, an Israeli commander entered the grove with a group of more than two dozen new recruits on an orientation tour of the adjoining Tel Rumeida settlement and H2. The commander approached him with a smile and exchanged a warm handshake and greetings in Hebrew.
The friendly exchange is unusual in what is one of the most tense areas of Hebron, where unlike anywhere else in the West Bank about 800 Jewish settlers live alongside 30,000 Palestinians and are forced to rub shoulders on a daily basis despite a history fraught with tension.
In 1929, 70 Jews were murdered by Palestinians in their homes and a synagogue and in 1994, a hardline American-Israeli murdered 29 Palestinians and injured another 125 in the Tomb of the Patriarchs. The tomb is in the old quarter of the city that falls in the military-controlled H2 area and contains 102 checkpoints.
Near the olive grove that Mr Zahadi tends is one owned by the Al Azzeh family, standing between their house and the high concrete wall surrounding the Tel Rumeida settlement.
The olive trees on the Al Azzeh property are overgrown and some branches heavy with ripe olives overhang the entrance to the family’s home.
Inside sits Nisreen Al Azzeh, a mother of four whose husband Hashem, 54, died in late October.
Hashem had begun harvesting the olive trees but had to stop after Israeli settlers climbed down the wall and attacked him. He was injured, but not seriously.
Just days later, Hashem was at home when he felt chest pains and needed medical assistance. Because Red Crescent ambulances are not allowed into the area, he was carried from his home on a stretcher to the Bab Al Zawiya area of Hebron. However, clashes broke out there between Palestinian protesters and Israeli forces and Hashem began coughing from inhaling tear gas. He was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital It is unclear if he died of a heart attack, but he had a history of heart disease.
In a video he filmed a year before his death, Hashem described the attacks his family has endured from Israeli soldiers and settlers.
“They saw that my wife was pregnant – they came and attacked her and she lost her pregnancy. The second time my wife was four months pregnant – they came and attacked her and she lost the second pregnancy. Later on they came and attacked us inside our houses and destroyed all of the furniture – everything inside the house was destroyed. With the back of the gun they beat me here and destroyed my teeth both sides,” he said, gesturing towards his cheeks.
The Al Azzeh family say they were unable to harvest their olives between 2007 and 2012 because settlers stopped them from approaching the trees.
Mr Zahadi said that despite the delay in starting the olive harvest this year, the quality of the fruit was high. However, he is unsure how things will be for the next harvest because Israeli military lockdowns in Hebron have increased since the violence escalated and the area around Tel Rumeida has been declared a closed military zone, forcing Palestinians to take further alternative routes to access their homes and land.